National Census Recognizes Third Gender in Nepal: So what?
What’s the difference between sex and gender? That’s right—think back to that obligatory biological anthropology class you took freshman year. Sex is strictly related to physiology and biology. Gender, however, refers to socially constructed ways that a given society deems appropriate for expressing one’s sexuality (i.e. through roles, behaviors, activities). This distinction, too often overlooked, is crucial to understanding the way other cultures conceptualize sexuality and gender, and how those conceptions are manifested in daily life.
Despite efforts here in the United States to bring gay and transgender issues to the forefront of national politics, the rights of gay and transgender Americans still largely remain in a gray zone of localized interpretation. Furthermore, culturally, the LGBT community has struggled to find a legitimized niche within the American social structure. In other corners of the world, this is decidedly not the case. A third gender identity has been a defined part of certain indigenous cultures in North America (Two-Spirit, Midwest American Indian), the South Pacific (fafafini, Samoa), Thailand (kathoey), and more.
Several years ago in Thailand, for instance, a school principal decided to introduce a third bathroom stall after a poll found that near 10% of the school’s 2500 students identified themselves as transgender. Buddhist Thai culture is extremely tolerant to the kathoey population, a third gender which is physiologically male but expressing themselves socioculturally as females.
In India, for comparison, the hijra is a recognized third gender—typically bearing male genitalia, but presented culturally as females. This cultural phenomenon has been a part of Indian society for more than 4,000 years of recorded history, since the time of the Kama Sutra period. This group is historically credited with having special powers of luck and fertility, which means they are oft-sought guests when it comes to weddings and other special occasions where blessings of good fortune are of particular importance.
In nearby Nepal, a 2007 Supreme Court decision to recognize a third gender in the national census has been making world news ever since. The Nepalese government has required Nepalese citizens to clearly indicate their gender identity, providing three options, in all citizenship documentation. Such documentation, most often seen in the form of a citizenship certificate, is necessary for a broad range of health and legal services (e.g. opening a bank account, applying for a passport). This is believed to be an unprecedented decision in world history, but what are the actual effects? Reported logistical problems and discrimination among census-takers have disrupted some of the praise the court decision had garnered initially.
Contrary to popular belief, the third gender is still widely stigmatized in Nepal. Discrimination is not uncommon. While this political gesture may be a stride in the direction of full tolerance for sexual and gender minority rights in Nepal, as with most public policy decisions, the formal recognition is far from a panacea. Activists representing the Nepalese LGBT community are still striving for more rights and broader acceptance.
Because the third gender is not an accepted or defined part of Western culture, it is natural for there to be a defensive reaction against these issues. Does a Supreme Court decision in Kathmandu have anything to do with you? The answer is always, categorically, yes. The national conversation around LGBT rights here in the United States is likely not settling anytime soon. A culturally sensitive understanding of sexuality and gender expression is important when we start making decisions that affect the LGBT population in our own communities.
And when there’s not time for painstaking research on a topic, a brief documentary will always suit. A 10-minute documentary circulated by the UN Development Programme highlights Nepal’s sexual minorities. Take some time today and watch “Out of the Closet” here.