"I feel safe now," says Om, a 24-year-old who identifies as third-gender, as he walks across Bageshwori Park in Nepalgunj to buy coconut milk. "I used to come to this park at night to meet friends, but I was beaten in the bathroom one time because of how I look, so I never went back."
Om is back in the park for a special occasion: the opening of Nepal’s first gender-inclusive public toilet. Smoke from a pile of burning corn cobs and garbage 40 feet away wafts through the crowd, making some cough. Then, as the afternoon sun blazes, a crimson curtain gets jerked aside to reveal a plaque, and the country’s first gender-inclusive public toilet is officially opened.
In Nepal, a legally protected third-gender category, labeled "third-gender" or "other," has existed since the Supreme Court issued its decision in favour of a group of LGBTI NGOs in 2007. The court ordered the government to scrap all discriminatory laws, recognise those who identified as third-gender, and form a study committee to recommend same-sex marriage policies for Nepal. The lead petitioner on that case was Sunil Babu Pant, who, six months later, was elected to parliament.
Legally speaking, the third gender in Nepal is an identity-based category for people who do not identify themselves as either male or female. This may include people who perform or present as a gender that is different from the one that was assigned to them at birth based on genitalia or other criteria. It can also include people who do not feel that the male or female gender roles that their culture dictates to them match their true social, sexual, or gender identity.
The 2007 court decision is regarded by human rights activists around the world as one of the most progressive legal moves a government has ever made with regard to gender identity. Most notably, the court declared that the only requirement for being identified as a third-gender is self-identification.
"This is to show respect for the gender-variant people of Nepal," said Pant of the new facility in Nepalgunj. "And to demonstrate physically what our court said five years ago, that citizens who identify as not male and not female are equal citizens."
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