First transgender choir strikes gay rights chord in Nepal

By Sudeshna Sarkar,IANS,

Kathmandu : Bhakti Shah faces an uphill struggle to get her job back a year after Nepal’s army sacked the physical training instructor for being involved in a lesbian relationship with a trainee.

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“I have filed a case in the Supreme Court,” says the 24-year-old, who looks like a teenaged boy with her close-cropped hair and wiry frame.

“But the hearing can’t start until the army has completed its procedure and the army is deliberately prolonging it.”

Shah’s partner, who too was sacked by the army, has been disowned by her family for refusing to end her relationship. She now faces a harrowing time in college.

“I am studying management,” says the 23-year-old, who does not want to be named. “But I can’t attend class because the other students mock at me.”

Suman Tamang, 26, who comes from Nepal’s tea garden district of Jhapa in the east, has a similar story.

Rejected by her family after she decided to begin a same-sex relationship, Tamang now works as a peer counsellor at Blue Diamond Society (BDS) in Kathmandu, Nepal’s pioneer gay rights organisation.

“Sundays used to be the worst days for me,” Tamang confesses. “With the office being closed and nowhere to go, I used to have dark thoughts about how my family and friends treated me and I would become depressed.

“But now, I have begun looking forward to Sundays. They have become fun days.”

For nearly two dozen gays, lesbians and transgenders like Tamang and Shah, Sundays now have a new purpose, thanks to the first transgender choir that made its debut with a concert at a hotel in Thamel, the capital’s tourist hub, Sunday.

The choir is the brain child of a Dutch gay couple, Sjoerd Warmerdam, 21, and Jaco Van Dendool, 29, who first visited Nepal in February 2008, came in contact with BDS and decided to stay on.

Joined by a third tourist, 28-year-old Marloes Oudeman, the three set up a band, Poesie and the Fags, and began to play gigs in Thamel’s hotels.

“We saw how gays are treated in Nepal,” says Sjoerd. “They are thrown out by their families and no employer would give them a job. We saw the interest they have in music and dancing and we thought of forming a gay band.

“It is meant to get together and have some fun afternoons.”

The transgender choir has also brought out its first CD.

“It’s not a commercial venture,” Sjoerd explains. “It’s more to create awareness about transgenders – that they have the same human rights as any others.”

Sjoerd’s aunt Ankie Warmerdam, a 63-year-old retired health educator, sponsored the first concert, from the roses presented to the members to the black T-shirts with a pink sun worn as the choir uniform.

“I am a bisexual,” Warmerdam says. “About 35 years ago, I faced a lot of problems in my own country. But now things have changed. My nephew didn’t have to go through my difficulties.”

She calls the transgender choir a community art.

“It’s meant to bring people together,” she says. “The members of the choir get food for self-esteem.”