Standing in the courtyard at RR Campus in Kathmandu, Roshan Mahato looks relaxed and proud. This, just 7 years ago was the spot where he was teased and harassed so badly by his peers that he transferred to another college. Today, the president of Nepal’s LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) Student Forum, Mahato is a familiar face on campuses around the country. The change, he says, took time and patience – with others and with himself.
Born in a small village in Chitwan, Mahato recognised from an early age that he felt different from most of his peers. These feelings, he describes, “made me want to leave the small village, and made me willing to do it at any cost.”
During high school, he moved to Kathmandu and worked at a hotel cleaning toilets. In 2003, he saw photos of Blue Diamond Society’s Gai Jatra LGBTI pride parade on Durbar Marg. “I was afraid, but so curious. I didn’t have a vocabulary for how I felt. I thought maybe this was it – that these people felt the same way.” Months later, he joined a casual discussion group at BDS. This, he says, is where he started surprising himself.
During that meeting, the BDS staff member asked if anyone wanted to share a personal experience or story. The room sat silent for several minutes, and then Mahato spoke up.
“I talked about feeling different. I talked about being interested in other boys and I explained the frustration of not having the words to describe all of these,” he recalls. Unsurprisingly, the group reacted by supporting him. “This felt very strange but very good,” Mahato explains, “I’d had this conversation, told this story so many times in private, with other friends who are gay, but the reaction from them was never positive. It always spun off into fear.”
After he moved to Kathmandu, Mahato made plenty of gay male friends. They would meet online and chat on anonymous forums, or in discreet tea shops in the city. But their conversations were almost always punctuated by two points; no one can know about this, and marriage to a woman was certainly in the future.
Three months after he came out to the small group at BDS, Mahato surprised himself again. At a public event about LGBTI rights held at Kathmandu’s World Trade Centre building, Sunil Babu Pant approached Mahato before a session on the experience of gay men in Nepal. “He asked if I wanted to participate, if I wanted to speak up,” says Mahato. “I said yes but was terrified throughout my entire speech. The magic moment occurred when everyone clapped for me.”
Pant founded Blue Diamond Society in 2001. The organisation now has CBO affiliates in nearly 40 districts and has made contact with over 400,000 people across the country who identify as sexual and gender minorities, or LGBTI. It’s courage like Mahato’s, Pant believes, that has made such growth possible.
“In the beginning of BDS, we struggled to retain members,” Pant explains. “Whenever new people came to meetings, the others would literally hide in the closets and only come out with their faces covered.”
Mahato’s public coming out as a BDS volunteer and young gay man gave Pant confidence that the younger generation of LGBTI people would be bold and help the rights movement by living their lives openly. Almost immediately, Mahato felt the effects.
“I got phone calls and text messages for the next three days,” he recalls. “All of a sudden, I had dozens of new gay friends. They all wanted to meet me and ask me questions. But mostly, they wanted to know how I told my family.” Soon, Mahato was casually counseling gay men in Kathmandu on everything from sexual health to coming out to friends and how to respond when families insist they get married.
Along with this private attention, Mahato slowly became a target for media attention and, with that, the leadership of student organisations at Tribhuvan University, where he was enrolled in sociology program. A newspaper article about “the gay student at TU” outed him to his brother, who is a police officer in the Tarai.
“He reacted really positively,” says Mahato. “His first action was to call me and tell me he was proud of me being brave and open, and his second action was to call Sunil and thank him for making Nepali society safer for his brother.”
Mahato’s other brother, a school teacher in Chitwan, was just as supportive. Nonetheless, he says he continued to get phone calls from his mother asking him why he wasn’t married yet.
“It’s difficult to explain to her,” he says. “She’s illiterate, she hasn’t travelled much, she’s just worried about my life not falling into the pattern she thinks it should.”
Mahato fends off such questions by saying he’s too busy with school and work, that he’ll get married when he finds the right person and that he doesn’t need anyone’s help. “I will, I think, get married,” he says smiling, “because I think same-sex marriage law will come in my lifetime, and I’ll find the right guy.”
Mahato is now a popular public figure in Nepal’s LGBTI rights movement. He’s represented the organization at conferences in New Zealand and the United States, and is the founding president of the Student Forum, which now boasts nearly 200 members. But these successes are balanced with the reality of daily life for gay men in Kathmandu.
“Most of my gay male friends are not open about it,” he says with a sigh. “It can be confusing for me. Sometimes I’m really frustrated with them when they complain about not enough gays being out but sometimes I’m completely compassionate because I know the pressures they face to get married to women, start families, and live a conventional Nepali lifestyle.”
Pant believes it’s this kind of courage that will bolster the LGBTI rights movement in the future. “Rallies and protests are important,” he says, “but the bravery of individuals like Roshan has enormous impact as well. People should follow his lead.”
And people are. “Roshan’s leadership among students made it clear that helping LGBTI students feel welcome and safe needed to be a priority for us,” says Shailendra Sharma Gaudel, president of Nepal Student Union for RR Campus. Three months ago, Gaudel’s student union successfully lobbied the college administration to allow third gender students to use the gender-neutral staff toilet.
“When people say there are not enough openly-gay leaders in Nepal today,” explains Mahato, “I’m not sure how to respond.”
Patience has to match courage, he believes: “I understand the fear.” Now 28 and working on his Master’s thesis, Mahato says the phone calls from his mother about marriage arrangements have stopped. His message to others: “It might feel like you’re alone or your family is particularly conservative. But that’s why we have support groups – formal and informal – around the country. Join us.”