“Hello madame, how are you? Which country you from?”
This is a pretty common phrase I hear when, on my days off, I get my rubber-necking tourist persona on around Kathmandu, taking in the sites, amazing temples and general hustle and bustle of what can be frankly a bloody crazy city.
Often, I’ll tend to ignore these repetitive cries from locals, as they inevitably lead to my being implored to buy their Tiger Balm or mini Buddha statuettes. This time though, the biggest concern for the day, as I wandered around with a traveller buddy of mine, was what to have for lunch – so, I decided to give this local guy the time of day.
After finding out what I did (“where you live? What you do? How long in Nepal?”), and that I work with a minority (Dalit women), he told my friend and I about himself quite openly (with the added, “Call me Candy*”) – that he was formerly involved in the Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) community and identified as transgender. But now he has a young son and family and fears discrimination against his son, so lives a “normal” Nepali life, and only cross-dresses on special occasions. Then Candy asked my friend and me home for a cup of tea with his family.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his home, sipping the typical cups of milky sweet Nepali tea, we heard from Candy about the discrimination against the transgender community and cross-dressers in Nepal, the cloistered nature of MSM, and the risks of HIV and STIs within marginalised LGBTI/MSM communities. (If you want to know more about this stuff, there’s a pretty cool organisation, the Blue Diamond Society, who works “to improve the sexual health, human rights and well-being of sexual and gender minorities in Nepal, including third-genders, gay men, bisexuals, lesbian, and other men who have sex with men [MSM]”. They do some great work, in what is a challenging and often conservative socio-political climate in Nepal).
We sat there with Candy, his son, wife, and sister – Candy talked about how he still, on occasion, cross-dresses and how his wife helps him put on his makeup, and then showed us his one pair of high-heeled shoes for going out, which he put on proudly and paraded about.
All of this blew my friend’s mind a little. To be fair, he’s an incredibly open-minded traveller, non-judgemental, who takes life as it comes. But this – to see a cross-dressing Nepali man with a son and a wife who helps him put on his makeup – it definitely went against every conception he had of the traditional Nepali family unit and typical tea-sharing ceremony you have when invited into a Nepali household.
Walking back from our day of tourist-ing it up, my friend wanted to know more about Candy, MSM and cross-dressing in Nepal, and to really learn for the first time about what “gender” is really all about.
This isn’t some ode to a friend – he’s just your average Joe a bit ignorant of the world of gender. Yet I have friends at home who would have laughed at Candy strutting his stuff whilst we sipped our sweet tea, or who would have become distinctly uncomfortable and want to leave. This experience really highlighted to me the difference between: A) Those who are confronted with gender-bending situations and really can’t deal with them in terms of what they experience – those situations which challenge every social norm and gender role they have been brought up with, to the point their only way of processing their experience is to label it as “crazy” or “f%&king weird” or “unnatural”; or B) Those who are confronted by these situations and go: “Wow, this is different and nothing I’ve really ever encountered – tell me more about it, help me understand this even though I feel way out of my depth.”
Gender issues are complex, frustrating, subjective, highly contextual and often after thinking and arguing about something, you can wind up even more confused about an issue than you did before. But at least some people have the guts to open their minds up to those complex, difficult thoughts, to consider situations and concepts alien to them, to have the balls to discard their whole cultural truckload of judgement and this-is-how-the-world-works for long enough to think about gender in an entirely different and productive way.
This is the way forward. People need to be willing to do this, so that we can initiate dialogues on gender and the million and one issues out there. Without that opening of the mind, we run into a wall of narrow-mindedness and ignorance, fear of that mysterious Other who disrupts carefully maintained gender lines, again, and again, and again.
And you know what? All these thoughts, this post, have come about just because a friendly guy called Candy just wanted to have a chat.
*Name changed for anonymity.
(photo via Wikimedia Commons)