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Nepal same-sex marriage a milestone for LGBTQ rights in Asia

Lekhanath Pandey in Kathmandu
December 4, 2023

In Nepal, a cisgender man and a transgender woman, legally considered a man, became the first couple in South Asia to have their "same-sex" marriage legally recognized.

Surendra Pandey and Maya Gurung hold hands
It took years before Surendra Pandey and Maya Gurung's marriage was recognizedImage: Subash Shrestha

In late November, Surendra Pandey and Maya Gurung became the first same-sex couple in Nepal to have their marriage officially recognized, following a years-long process of legal wrangling.

Their legally recognized same-sex marriage is the first of its kind in a South Asian country, and marks a milestone for LGBTQ rights.

"We have achieved legal recognition, a monumental victory not just for us but for the entire LGBTQ community," Pandey told DW, adding he is grateful for the support from local officials and communities.

"We got justice. Now we are complete together," Gurung told DW.

A lengthy legal process

However, the couple's journey was far from easy and was marred by social judgments and family pressure on top of the protracted legal and procedural hurdles.

In 2007, Nepal's Supreme Court had ordered the government to change existing legal provisions to allow same-sex marriages. But successive governments failed to pass required legislation that would mandate lower courts to legally recognize same-sex marriages.

In 2017, Pandey and Gurung were married in a Hindu wedding ceremony. In June 2023, they filed a petition in Kathmandu District Court seeking legal recognition of their marriage after the Supreme Court instructed municipal authorities to provide an "interim registry" for same-sex marriages until existing marriage legislation could be amended.

Maya Gurung (l) and Surendra Pandey hold their marriage certificate
Maya Gurung (l) and Surendra Pandey hold their marriage certificate Image: Subash Shrestha

The couple had thus expected the registration process to go smoothly. However, both the Kathmandu District Court and another high court refused to register the marriage, claiming that federal law only allowed the registration of heterosexual couples. This is despite the Supreme Court ruling.

Pandey, 27, identifies as cisgender male, and Gurung, 38, is a transgender woman, who in Nepal is legally considered a male.

The lower courts based their rulings on Nepal's civil code, which defines marriage as between a man and woman. The Supreme Court ruling had attempted to get around this by creating the interim registry until the law was changed, but the claimed national law would have to be changed before they recognized Pandey and Gurung's marriage.

However, Nepal's Home Ministry said in the last week of November that all local administration offices are allowed to register same-sex marriages.

On November 29, Pandey and Gurung received their marriage certificate from the Dordi rural municipality in western Nepal's Lamjung district where Gurung is from.

"This registration has opened a lot of things for us, including operating a joint bank account, holding properties and adopting children in the future," Pandey said.

Nepal's LGBTQ community celebrates

The local community in Lamjung district, including a women's group, celebrated the validation of the couple's wedding with various cultural events, including dances and music.

The pair's wedding recognition was also celebrated by the LGBTQ community in the ancient city of Kirtipur on the outskirts of Kathmandu on Sunday.

"As the first to register our union, we'll persist in championing the causes and rights of others within the community," Pandey said.

Four months ago, the couple founded "Mayako Pahichan" (Identity of Love), an organization aimed at advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ community and addressing forced marriages among sexual minorities.

Sunil Babu Pant, an openly gay former lawmaker, who attended the celebrations for the couple, said that such events are part of a progressive shift in Nepali society.

"Nepali society has become very liberal and positive in this respect," Pant told DW.

He added that the historic achievement should help pave the way for the recognition and protection of the rights of sexual minorities across Nepal, as well as potentially influencing neighboring nations to reconsider their stance on same-sex unions.

However, in October, neighboring India's Supreme Court took a step in the opposite direction by refusing to legalize same-sex marriage.

India: Gay couples ask court to recognize same-sex marriage

In Nepal, no official data is available on same-sex and transgender couples who want to come forward and register their marriages. However, Pant said that there are up to 200 married same-sex and transgender couples who could come forward to register their unions.

Pant, founder of Blue Diamond Society, which advocates for the causes of sexual minorities, has called for an urgent parliamentary action to enact legislation governing various aspects of same-sex marriages.

These include joint property ownership, inheritance, child adoption, divorce, and guardianship in cases of separation.

Nepal's progressive steps have included allowing "other" as a gender category in passports since 2015, and introducing the "other" gender category in the 2021 census, where 2,928 individuals identified themselves under "others" among approximately 30 million people.

Pant, however, said sexual minorities are underrepresented in official records and has called for improved enumeration methods in census data.

Opposition to same-sex marriage remains

Nepal's journey toward recognizing same-sex marriage was not free from opposition. A section of conservative Nepalese society is still against the idea of legalizing same-sex marriages, although opponents are gradually diminishing in number.

Gurung has largely been supported by her family. Pandey, orphaned at the age of six and raised by his maternal uncle, initially faced opposition from his sister regarding his engagement to Gurung.

Kamal Thapa, chairperson of Nepal's conservative Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal (RPPN), and former deputy prime minister, told DW that legalizing same-sex unions would break the "sanctity of marriage and family values" in Hindu-majority Nepali society.

"I support the rights of individuals to love and be with their loved ones. However, when it comes to same-sex marriage, it contradicts our fundamental concept of the 'institution of marriage,' which traditionally embodies a sacred union between a man and a woman," he said.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn