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Developing Tolerance: Grad Student Studies Sexual Rights in Nepal

Pratima Upadhyay is using her master's thesis as a vehicle to analyze the LGBTI community in a developing nation.

Date: 1/21/2010
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Provided by Pratima Upadhyay
Pratima Upadhyay, a master’s student in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS), has a passion for global developmental issues. The daughter of a Filipino mother and a Nepali father, Upadhyay lived in the Philippines, Nepal, Oman, Bangladesh and Switzerland before coming to the United States to study at St. Olaf College for her undergraduate degree.

Pratima Upadhyay and Nepali Parliament member Sunil Babu Pant.
Pratima Upadhyay interviewed Nepali Parliament member Sunil Babu Pant for her thesis on the LGBTI movement in Nepal.

“Growing up in various countries and being exposed to many different kinds of people and lifestyles, it seemed like a natural draw for me to go into this field,” Upadhyay says.

Now in her second year of the program, Upadhyay is immersing herself in her master’s thesis: a critical analysis of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersexual (LGBTI) movement in Nepal—the first study of its kind in the English-speaking world.

With the dismantling of Nepal’s absolute monarchy-based system in 1990 came political and social upheaval that is still unfolding today. A decade-long civil war brought forth the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN/Maoist) culminated in the establishment of a democratic republic in 2008, abolishing the oppressive hierarchy-based monarchy.

The Maoist-labeled “People’s War” brought in a flourish of social justice movements, including the fight for gender and sexual minorities. Sunil Babu Pant, the founding member of the Blue Diamond Society—the country’s first LGBTI non-government organization—was appointed a member of Parliament, making him the first openly gay lawmaker in the history of Nepal. Nepal’s Supreme Court also agreed to a “third gender” option on all identification cards and official documents, and the courts formed a same-sex marriage committee to investigate the best way to legalize same-sex marriage.

“There’s a pretty dynamic and powerful LGBTI movement that’s going on,” Upadhyay says. “Considering that about 10 years ago sexual and gender minorities were invisible under the law, what is happening today in Nepal is fascinating.”

Last summer, Upadhyay received a grant from WGSS to help fund an internship with the Blue Diamond Society, where she spent her time interviewing key members of the organization for preliminary data, including Pant himself.

Pratima Upadhyay.
Upadhyay (top left) volunteered with Nepal's Blue Diamond Society last summer.

“Pratima is doing really cutting-edge research, especially for a master’s student,” says Amy Lind, associate professor and graduate director in WGSS. “There’s really nothing written on Nepal in the English-speaking world on this topic and very little in Nepal, for that matter. Her research is going to be a really important contribution.”

In her MA project, Upadhyay also aims to contextualize Nepal’s LGBTI movement with similar movements in countries in the global south, such as South Africa, Ecuador and Bolivia.

“I’m trying to show that there is a correlation between all the political and developmental initiatives going on in Nepal and the LGBTI movement,” Upadhyay says. “I want to see the connections that put the LGBTI movement in the larger struggle of nation building.”

Ultimately, Upadhyay hopes to get a job at a development organization and focus on international sexual rights. But right now, she’s quick to say graduate school and her project, “The Struggle for LGBTI Rights in Nepal,” is her top priority.

“I want people to know about this project,” she says. “I want this work to open a door for future Nepali researchers or other international scholars that are interested. It’s such an interesting topic.”

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