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Blue Diamond Society, Nepal, bravely faces its greatest challenge

Editor's note: This article was originally meant to run on 05/01. But the message still remains abundantly clear even a week later.

Earthquakes do not discriminate. A building that simply pancakes draws no distinction between men, women, third gender persons, children or the aged when it falls. This week (Apr. 25), the world watched images of apartments, shops, hotels and historic religious centers entombing tragic numbers of people from all walks of life estimated to be 10-15,000 souls.

As the search and rescue operations come to an end this weekend, the painful process of removing bodies from the rubble, mass burials and dealing with limited food and water supplies, a shortage of emergency housing and fighting off diseases like cholera now kicks in.

The Nepalese community itself is in deep shock and cannot possibly process the losses that they witness every day. The international community, with search and rescue experts on hand and international relief agencies can represent the support and concern of those of us who will watch these images on out televisions for another week or so.

Then the Nepal story will unfortunately move off the front pages of our media outlets as lead stories and will compete with other crises and disasters. So the coming week offers an important opening for the international community in particular, to respond and to help organizations on the ground like the Blue Diamond Society. They have been working tirelessly since their founding in 2001 by the first openly LGBTI elected politician, Sunil Pant.

Blue Diamond Society is one of the most respected LGBTI organizations on the planet

amfAR is one of several international organizations supporting BDS and has this to say about their working among some of the most marginalized people on the planet:

“Blue Diamond Society has adopted a diverse approach to service delivery. It starts by creating safe spaces to foster interaction and imparting self-care and life skills training. With offices in 30 districts, networks in 50, and one hospice devoted to caring for HIV-positive MSM and transgender people, the organization also offers a host of HIV-related services, including educational programs, peer outreach, HIV testing, sexually-transmitted infection (STI) treatment, safe-sex advice, and condom distribution.

The peer education program has been a vital component of Blue Diamond Society’s work. The educators “are a real bridge between hidden populations and the healthcare services they need,” said Mr. Pant. That kind of outreach is essential when HIV prevalence among MSM is estimated at 4.8 percent, roughly nine times that of the general population.

It is on the advocacy front that Blue Diamond Society has made perhaps the greatest impact in Nepal. The group actively engages with law enforcement, government, and media to address broad issues of social and legal discrimination.

“We used to face a lot of violence and abuse from security forces, but that’s been going down since the Supreme Court decision in 2007 [legalizing homosexuality],” said Mr. Pant. “Having legal rights sends a strong message to the authorities that they can no longer cause this kind of discrimination. Now Nepal is writing a new constitution and I think there will be a lot of progress for LGBT people”—perhaps including the right to same-sex marriage, a goal being advanced by Mr. Pant and other advocates.”

Sunil Pant –a rare leader to be trusted and admired

Two years ago, I worked with Sunil on bringing attention to the inclusion of third gender persons in an employment training program funded by the World Bank. Even though BDS had worked hard to have third gender recognition by the government, the Bank-funded program did not give equal opportunity to third gender applicants.

The Bank quickly recognized their inconsistent policy and changed the approach. Nepal was one of the first countries to recognize gay marriage in 2007 because of Sunil’s leadership and the difficult work of BDS. Interviewed by Jenni Chang and Lisa Dazols, Sunil reflected on BDS’s achievements:
“I'm most proud of the Supreme Court decision in April 2007.

The Blue Diamond Society took the government to court. I did not realize that the documentation of human rights abuses I did over the years -- the piles of photographs, medical reports, and incidents -- could be so useful to the courts. The judges studying those could not believe the level of inhumane treatment that had happened from the security forces.

While setting up a strategic plan for the case, I had some hesitation with our lawyers and activists here, because I didn't think we could demand marriage equality at this stage. Our society seemed too far from it. We also didn't want to drag into court the question of sodomy and what is natural or unnatural. I wanted to stick with very fundamental issues: freedom from torture, equal access to health, education, jobs, and end of violence. Basic safety.

The court case started building up from them. The judges asked about the problems we have. We talked about gay and lesbians being forced into marriages. So the judges ordered the government to draft a same-sex marriage law.

They also asked the government to amend all the discrimination laws against LGBTI [people]. We talked about difficulties for transgender individuals. A lot of them do not have ID cards that match their gender. So then the court ordered that a third identity for transgenders be created”.

A trusted network

With 50 networks and 35 offices throughout the country, Blue Diamond Society has one of the most important grass-roots networks to serve individuals and families who even before the earthquake, had fallen through the cracks. Often forced to live off earning from survival prostitution, many of BDS’s third gender members face enormous social, cultural and religious barriers. There is concern that a long-term effects of the earthquake’s devastation may unravel the gains so many Nepalese have worked for.

Sunil’s recent appeal for help from the international community asks for immediate cash assistance for emergency supplies and food, while the longer term issue of including sanitary facilities for third gender refugees by larger international aid agencies needs our advocacy.

Yesterday he reported:

“It’s as clear as the daylight that LGBTIs in Nepal are equally affected if not more. When disrepair hits, marginalized, excluded and vulnerable communities suffer the most. The needs are enormous in Nepal and different aid agencies and government have their own priorities but these priorities should be based on facts, needs and urgency rather than based up on cultural/social biased or your own agencies traditional approach that have usually overlooked LGBTIs so far.

For example we have seen some of the toilets that constructed around relief camps are only based on binary gender mechanisms excluding third gender propitiation. Queues for "Rashan" and other aid kits are the same, based on binary genders.

We call Nepal government, USAID, DFID, Norad, UNDP, GIZ, Oxfam and the other aid agencies to actively and purposefully include LGBTI into their response and rehab programs. We also call our follow LGBTI rights organizations in the world to join forces to encourage USAID, DFID, Norad, UNDP, GIZ, Oxfam and the other aid agencies to actively and purposefully include LGBTI into their response and rehab programs. This might mean a joint communique or a statement.

Thank you very much for your kind thoughts, generosity and solidarity”.

Immediate appeal launched
On Wednesday, the St Paul’s Foundation launched an emergency appeal for BDS as one of a number of organizations who are showing solidarity with the marginalized of Nepal. One of the first reports from BDS told the heartbreaking discovery of a member of BDS who had been killed in the quake and the organization returned her body to family for burial.

Offices have been destroyed and the HIV programs including their hospice has been severely damaged. The risk for violence and abuse rises every day with the death toll. You can read these reports here

and send a donation where 100% of whatever we receive in the coming weeks, will be sent to Sunil and his brave colleagues. We will also contact several relief organizations raising Sunil’s concerns about services for the LGBTI community. We hope this cutting-edge local movement will become stronger and more committed than ever and win the respect and trust of their neighbors, even in the wake of a major national disaster.

Transformed suffering and loss

It is always good to know our money is going where it is really needed. Today, I make a gift in memory of my former partner, Frank Wilson, who died from HIV related complications on this day thirty years ago, May 1st 1985.

Disaster and loss touches all of us in different ways and if we let it, it can open our hearts to bring healing to the world. Even after 30 years, the loss of an individual like Frank, is never quite healed. I think of all of the families who have lost loved ones in Nepal and we connect at a deeper core as vulnerable human beings.

Earthquakes take many forms, but it is out of the debris and the shaking of our certainty to its core, that we discover what we are made of and where our priorities really are. Blue Diamond Society understands this paradox in a way that it could not have imagined a few weeks ago.

I really believe in this organization. It is an honor to be associated with this extraordinary movement of courage and hope, coming from one of the world’s most painful wounds. Your compassion and gift matters and it makes a difference. http://stpaulsfdr.org/donation/index.html

i>RGOD2 looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view and is written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, Vicar of St. Peter’s, Lithgow in Millbrook, New York. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of San Diego-based St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.