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Dividing by Three: Nepal Recognizes a Third Gender

By Kyle Knight

KATHMANDU–Badri Pun slept in a gravel courtyard in rural Nepal for more than a week. After the first two days, he stopped eating. By night, he huddled under wool blankets, clutching a folder full of papers, some which made his life legal—his birth certificate, his motorcycle license, and his citizenship identification card, and one which made a new life possible–a 30-page four-year-old court decision.

By day, he left the courtyard and entered the government building it encircled. He spent hours at the building shoving the documents in front of various government officials, insisting his ID papers were wrong. After twelve days of protesting, he won his case, Badri Pun was issued a new citizenship ID card, and it listed him as “third gender.” 

The Court’s decision was a stunning victory for the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) rights movement in Nepal, the formal movement just six years old. Its specific orders, however, have been slow to manifest. The decision in Sunil B. Pant and others v. the Government of Nepal on December 21, 2007 ordered the government to scrap all discriminatory laws, form a committee to study same-sex marriage policy, and establish a third gender category for gender-variant people. The piecemeal implementation of the third gender category tells the story both of the relentless activism on the ground, and the politics of sexuality and gender rights in contemporary Nepal.

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 want to perform or want to be presented as a gender that is different than the one which was assigned to them at birth, based on genitalia or other criteria. It can also include people who do not feel the male or female gender roles that their culture dictates to them match their true social, sexual, or gender role preference. 

There are other countries that have a third gender, but none nearly as comprehensive as Nepal. India has used a third gender category in several administrative capacities. In 2005, India's third gender citizens could start registering for passports as eunuch, denoted by an "E." In 2009, an"E" designation was added to voter registration documents. Shortly after Nepal announced it would include a third category on its census, India added one. And in 2011, the Unique Identification Authority of India, administering a new government citizen ID number system allowed "transgender" as a third gender option. Australia and New Zealand both have ‘X’ as an option in addition to ‘M’ or ‘F’ on passport applications. Bangladesh allows third gender citizens to register to vote as Eunuchs. Pakistan’s Supreme Court also ordered the government to issue third gender ID cards but, three years later, not a single one has been issued.

In 2001, Sunil Pant (who would go on to petition the Court) registered Nepal’s first LGBTI organization, the Blue Diamond Society (BDS). Most of the Blue Diamond Society’s initial members were transgender sex workers—biologically male, performing a feminine gender role.

Transgender sex workers had for a long time been the target of widespread police violence, which the media eventually took notice of, especially when the BDS began to systematically document it. According to BDS archives, in 2003, major local media outlets ran 13 stories about abuse of LGBTI people in Nepal. A year later, major international NGOs and media outlets would cover the arrests of 39 third gender BDS members, pushing the movement into the spotlight. 

In 2006, with the brutal 10-year communist revolution coming to an end in Nepal, Pant was invited to join a group of experts in Yogyakarta, Indonesia to discuss how international human rights standards relate to sexual orientation and gender identity. The result of these talks, the Yogyakarta Principles, inspired Pant to take legal action at home. “The conflict had just ended, and a new Nepal was promised,” Pant says, “so we decided we would try to use the court to make sure we were part of that new nation-building.”

The Court, at Pant’s urging, adopted the Yogyakarta Principles’ provision on gender identity: that the sole criterion for identifying as a gender is self-determination. The Court’s decision solidified the category in law—perhaps more strongly so than has ever been done before. Transgender rights movements elsewhere have found that having a non-male, non-female category could be helpful in securing rights.

After the Court decision, the third gender began to appear in various administrative nodes of the government. The Nepal Election Commission almost immediately began allowing voters to register as third gender, and many trekking permit applications added a third gender category as well. The Ministry of Youth and Sports added third gender to its National Youth Policy in 2010. And in perhaps the most sweeping implementation of the category, the 2011 federal census allowed citizens to self-identify as male, female, or third gender.

Heralded as the world’s first national census to include a gender category other than male or female, the survey took place in two phases. The first was a household registry, where government officials visited every home in the country; and the second being a full census, which visited every eighth home. The forms used by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in the Household Registry phase allowed Nepali citizens to identify as male, female, or third gender.

In theory, having the category on the household registry would give an official count of the number of people in the country who identify as third gender—and place the third gender community, at least partially, on the government’s radar. But the enumeration proved problematic. Many third gender citizens had to fight to be recorded properly. Reports of discrimination and fraud surfaced, accusing enumerators of using pencils to record gender instead of the CBS-mandated blue ink.

Despite the Nepali Supreme Court having ruled in late 2007 that citizens were entitled to select their gender identity based on “self-feeling,” Pun remains one of only three people in Nepal officially neither male nor female. Although the LGBTI rights movement has made much progress, there were issues dealing with disclosure. Some people brave enough to publicly identify themselves as third gender reported harassment from census enumerators when they asked to be listed as neither male nor female. Others were uncomfortable disclosing their identity when enumeration interviews took place with the entire family present. 

Compounding these research complications, citizens were only allowed to register as male or female on the second census form, which asked over 50 questions on topics including religion, water source, and occupation. Two months later, a post-enumeration survey of approximately 10,000 homes—used to check the data—operated in a similar manner to the second census form. No matter how someone identified themselves as being third gender, they were only able to identify as male or female in the household registry. Preliminary data published by the CBS revealed a zero count for third gender citizens.  

Shortly after the census, Pun took his third gender ID to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and applied for a passport. He was denied, the Ministry claimed, because they did not have any criteria for determining who was third gender, and then again a second time because the Ministry said the new Machine Readable Passport (MRP) could not accommodate a third gender. Pun took the Ministry to court, since neither of the Ministry’s claims hold water. According to the courts, the only criterion for third gender is self-identification, and international aviation standards have no gender restrictions. 

Like men and women, third gender people also identify with a range of sexual orientations. For example, one 24-year-old third gender explains, “I am biologically male, but I am not a man. I do not desire women sexually. Men in my culture desire women sexually. Therefore I am third gender.” He prefers male pronouns and says he dresses in male clothing about half the time (to avoid harassment) and female clothing the other half. He is married to a woman but lives secretly with his boyfriend.

When it comes to documentation, however, the logistics should not be too complicated. Passports provide a convenient and important case study. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopts standards and procedures for international travel documents. According to ICAO standards, four pieces of information need to be included on a passport: name, date of birth, nationality, and sex. ICAO regulations for MRPs say that a persons’ sex may be listed as unspecified. On the main section of the readable passport, sex can be listed as M, F, or X (for unspecified). In the MRP zone at the bottom of the page, it is indicated with M, F, or <.

Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is past due in responding to the Supreme Court. A year ago, Pun could have applied for a passport as a female, which is his biological sex listed on his birth certificate and original citizenship ID card. But today, as a third gender citizen, he has no choice but to wait for the Nepali bureaucracy to figure out how to acknowledge him. His colleague and friend, Bhumika Shrestha, who also identifies as a third gender, recently traveled to New York City to speak at a United Nations conference on gender equality. During a layover in Doha, she was pulled aside for special questioning. She presents herself as an elegant young woman, yet her ID and passport show a photo of a 16-year-old boy named Kailash, and she is listed as “Male”. The airline let her board the plane but not before forcing her to tell her life story.

Observers of Nepal’s LGBTI rights movement sometimes claim the category was created in line with contemporary Nepali politics. Listing the third gender as a comprehensive LGBTI category, they claim, means the movement can swell its numbers and gain clout—and eventually form a political party. Nepali language media have referred intermittently to Pant as a third gender, despite his open identity as a gay man. Others place the identity category into gender-ambiguous cultural tropes such as hijras (who often categorize themselves as a third gender in other South Asian countries). With 102 ethnic groups officially registered in the country and less than half of its citizens identifying Nepali as their mother tongue, dozens of words linked with sexual and gender identities are associated with the third gender category.

While the exact definition of third gender might be disputed in Nepal, as a legal category it is clearly defined—it is for those who wish to identify themselves as neither male nor female.

Badri Pun’s story is just one illustration of complexities of a society in transition. The constitution is in the final stages of drafting, and a new civil and criminal code will follow. The administrative measures that shape the quotidian transactions of citizenship are adjusting—some better than others—to accommodate a new category shaped both by international human rights standards and local culture. If the tenacity of the activism that began 11 years ago is any indication, the political life of this third category is only just beginning.



 Kyle Knight is a Fulbright Scholar in Kathmandu. You can follow him on Twitter @knightktm

 (Photo courtesy of Kyle Knight)


Anonymous's picture
The sole purpose for

The sole purpose for categorizing by gender is discrimination. Equal human rights require gender-neutral laws. No one should have to provide a gender choice on any form, it should be absent or optional, just like race and religion. Gender is no more reliable a form of identification than hair color and shouldn't even be on birth certificates.

Anonymous's picture
Dear Gina, While you

Dear Gina, While you rightly point out that having X on Australian passports for those who do not wish to identify either as male or female has its benefits, you must understand that the movement for the recognition of a spectrum of gender identities by organizations like the Blue Diamond society in Nepal have been taking place as movements specifically for the recognition of the category of the "third gender". In this sense, those who do not want to identify as male or female in Nepal do want to stress their difference, difference from the norm, hence the movement, hence the self identification as "third gender". As the article above makes it clear, those who do not want to identify as male or female, identify THEMSLEVES as "third gender" and the policies created responded to the very demand of those in the movement in creating a category that the movement self identifies in. While you point out that India/Nepal and South Asian countries as such have a long tradition of "othering" people, you do the same by essentializing such non-western nations as incapable of accommodating difference. You have a very orientalist reading of the developments in Nepal. While South Asian countries have exclusive systems of caste, class and religion operating in ways that sustain discrimination, no society or nation is totally egalitarian. What bothers me is the fact that you see the policies in Nepal as discriminatory while who do not even recognize the fact that countries that claim to be liberal democracies with a long history of "equality" and what not in the Western hemisphere/global North ALSO have much work to do before things can really be equal. I am not saying that Nepal and India and the places surrounding it have nailed it, what I am saying is there is no need to single out and frame countries with different cultures as backward, closed or incapable of accommodating difference. With that said, I'd like to end with a quote, "Your patriarchy is not better than my patriarchy as long as they're both patriarchy"... if you know what that means.

Anonymous's picture
Umbrella Corp.

Having a 3rd option ,unspecified as to what it includes, demeans the very real biological 3rd sex.Perhaps its use should be for the infantile intersexed(IS).Then the danger of being recognized as other could be contained? Think 3rd world countries; make X a special baby with protections. That family now gets an extra carton of milk from the organization, as long as they don't butcher the child's genitals in anyway.this creates logistic problems,how do we get the children seen by knowledgeable doctors? would it start a movement of parents cutting their M/F children to get the extra allowance? Realistically halting this practice would be something to do in developed countries.Fine and strip practitioners licenses for anyone electively marring a child,treat it as it is,abuse. Im also not against say the transgender using it as a different descriptor than M or F.But if there is going to be a recognized third marker,it better damn well encompass the third sex.not third gender,as it is a hosposh of self proclaimed identity.While I dont like the negative connotation derived by x,its use as unstated, seems like the only way to be inclusive for all variences. Giving all something to go on legally,until such a time as it can be dealt with properly.For the intersexed,allowing the child to make an informed decision later,postponing the thought of surgery till a later date. For the transgender (TG) or gender queers(GQ,TV,CD),it gives them something besides the binary to work from. For the transexual (TS), I see it bieng a hell inflicted apon the preop. Destroying what bit of validity they've gained by correcting their documents from M to F (or vice'versa),before corrective surgery can be obtained. For everyone either forced or opting in its use,it means different things,depending on where that individual is in accordance with their own sex.As an official document that may be used to protest different social practices, applying to different conditions of life,it cannot be left up to opinion. You cant enforce destroying the habit of genital mutilation on IS, and at the same time leave that validation to be used however a TG binary gender noncomformist wishes. Again we look at the TS and realize that as surgical implemetation is indeed needed, it is as CORRECTIVE.Just as the IS varience is not something ELECTIVE to be forced apon someone. One may again take note that sex and gender are two seperate things, as it is proclaimed about birth certificates and personal identification.

Anonymous's picture
Third gender and X on Australian Passports

Indeed Australia does allow its citizens to have X as a sex designator on passports. This is the only designator other than M or F that is allowable under ICAO rules. The X does not indicate a third sex or gender. ( the article above is quite inprecise in discerning the differences betwen sex , ones anatomy and gender , ones social sex role ) X on a passport indicates sex not specified , that is it opts out of sex/gender catogorisations and says nothing about that aspect of a person. X in fact retains a persons right to silence and pricvacy in respect of some aspects of themselves that are really nobodies business but their own. The creation of a third sex in Nepal is problematic. It effectivly ensrines differences as being "not normal' and those who have those differences now have to fight for rights as "other" rather being entitled to them as equals . No other nations have found it necesary to protect an atribute that attracts bigotry and discrimination by creating further legal classes of citizens. It has been done though , in Apartheidt South African and Nazi germany. In Both those circumstances seperate identity was confered on the basis of suposed physical differences. In the end it did the opposite to confering rights rather it made it easier to determine and marginalise those who qualified for the 'sepcial status' on identity documents. India Pakistan and Nepal have a long history of "Othering" those who are of diverse sexuality sex and gender. Our rights should be on the basis of our rights to equality without qualification and without the need to create further catogories that in the end contribvute to marginalisation and stigma rather than resisting it. This is in effect a legal extension of the caste, class structure rather than a measure to eliminate it and give unfettered access to rights . Now rather than haveing Acts of parliament that give the same right to all, this group of people will have to be named in the definitions to qualify.

Anonymous's picture
A good news story despite some inapt word choices

Thanks so much for posting this good news story, and for including so much useful detail in it. This is a really helpful overview of states' increasing trend toward offering a non M/F option for government documents. (@ Tokaymas -- The Australian X option was only announced September, 2011. Perhaps it hasn't taken effect yet. But, it was widely reported in the international media. See here, for instance: I'm concerned though that Mr. (Dr.? Sorry, I couldn't tell.) Knight's language choices sometimes undercut the important challenge to sex/gender binarism at the root of this story. In particular, the use of "he"/"him" throughout the piece to refer to Pun is infelicitous (or at least, it is so without some indication that these are Pun's preferred pronouns). And, referring to gender identity and gender expression as "preferences", or roles that people "want to perform" wrongly (it seems to me) casts gender variance as a choice. Overall though, this is a really useful piece. Many thanks.

Anonymous's picture
Australian Passport Application

"Australia and New Zealand both have ‘X’ as an option in addition to ‘M’ or ‘F’ on passport applications."
I don't know about NZ, but I just downloaded an Australian one and no, they don't.
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