Honey dreams of walking down the street with her long hair loose; a red lipstick smile and a colourful dress. She wouldn’t feel self-conscious, she says: if anything, she’d feel more like herself.
Nepal is widely considered one of the most progressive countries in Asia with regard to LGBTIQ rights. Since 2007 it’s been illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of their sexual orientation; it’s possible for transgender men and women to select a third gender on their identity documents, and trans women run for election.
The everyday reality for gay and transgender individuals living across the country is a different story. Acceptance is hard to come by. Finding a job is difficult. Holding hands with a person of the same sex could bring insults, violence, or death.
Over the course of three months in 2019, I began following 36-year-old Honey as she swings between two identities. Born Deepak Maharjan, she realised as a child that she was different from the boys her age – but expressing herself felt impossible. Her mother had left when she was young and her father battled unemployment and alcohol addiction. It was up to her to figure life out alone.
When she was old enough, she entered into a heterosexual relationship, and had two sons. It’s for them that she says she presents herself as male in public – only daring to apply make-up in private. The repercussions that her identity could have on her family are too much for her to bear.
Yet rumours continue to swirl; shrouding her life in shame and secrecy. Her brother, who she singlehandedly raised throughout his childhood, insults her. Finding work became impossible, so she entered the local sex industry – only to experience more violence and threats to her life. Both she and her boyfriend – a married soldier – know that they will never truly be together.
Honey fears she’ll never truly get to be herself at all.
“Honey” Born in Kirtipur, Nepal, 36 year old Deepak Maharjan realized she was transgender when she was eleven – renaming herself Honey, and dreaming of life as a woman. From a global perspective, Nepal is widely considered one of the most LGBTIQ friendly countries in Asia – but those who live there disagree. The danger of coming out in public is real and terrifying, they say. Better to keep their true selves locked away inside.
“I was probably eleven when I felt I was like a girl, but at that period in time, we didn’t have the term Transgender, but Newari language had a term called “Bau/Bhau” and people would use that term, and I would get afraid whenever I heard that term “Bau”. And I felt worried wondering if people thought bad about me/ perceived me in a bad light because I was a ladyboy.” Honey’s eye with some make up on.
“My friends and family call me Deepak but I like introducing myself as Honey. When I was 10 years old, my mother left us to marry another person. After that, my struggles began, and all responsibilities fell on my shoulder. My father drinks and doesn’t care much or pay us much attention, so I faced a lot of hardships.” Honey trying on women clothes and a wig.
“I couldn’t go to school after my mother left us. Then, I used to knit carpets in order to look after my younger brother and the household. Yet, my father would behave badly with me, probably because I was different. Even when I would spend the money earned from knitting carpets into the household, he didn’t like me that much. And one day, my father didn’t let me in the house and I went to sleep in the Paati (community rest-spaces), it was winter and I fearfully slept in the Paati. You never know where the next hardships might come from. People are compelled to enter the sex industry due to their circumstances, and compelled to bear many risks. People are compelled to risk getting HIV/AIDS, STDs and even risk their life.” Honey’s brother.
“When I was young, I wanted to wear girl’s clothes and makeup, and I questioned if I was a girl child instead of a boy child.” Honey in women clothes.
“I thought if us humans had the ability to live together like the fishes, and help each other – then this world wouldn’t be less than heaven. Its life, you never know when it will end, so I felt that us humans should do work that would make the other human beings remember us by. Some things teach you really good lessons. Thank you God for giving me this body.” “My son drew a picture of God’s hand.” Honey’s son, Devid 6 years old, during his birthday.
“My body’s relationship is a relationship that should be in a human being, but – because I find myself different, my body parts different – I wonder if God gave me the correctly constructed body; but then again I ponder why I wasn’t given a woman’s body, why I was constructed like this.”
“Regarding my relationship with god, I feel like god is endowed with all qualities and I am a worshipper.” Honey at the Aadinath Lokeshwar temple. She goes there to pray every morning at sunrise. The temple is situated on a hill nearby Kirtipur, with more than 300 steps to get there, it is said that good health is granted to whoever will go there to pray.
“When I had my first love relationship, I felt very happy because I had lived alone and did not know about love. When I had a relationship, I was happy” An old picture of Honey.
“Don’t ever love less (Pyaar Kabhi Kam Nahi Karnaa – a hindi song lyric): Maybe love is what human beings need the most. When there is conflict in love, a person’s desire to live diminishes. But we don’t know if a person has loved or not, but that is also something we can ascertain from someone’s behaviour. Thus equal treatment to everybody is a necessity.” Honey and her family at the restaurant. Honey is kissing her son Devid.
“This afternoon, my third gender friend Naresh told me that high number of HIV contraction is being seen in the 16-20 year olds of the LGBT community, and this caused me deep sadness. What to do, no knowledge on sex education and proper way of condom usage is causing this high numbers of HIV Positive people; and people are transmitting HIV to others not knowing about their own illness. One of the major causes behind this, I believe, is the non-testing for HIV, leading to easy transmission to others. I feel sad hearing all this.” Condoms in Honey’s friend room.
“It is difficult to be a third gender in Nepali society as the society sees many Transgender people involved in the sex trade, but they do not question the causes behind TGs involvement in sex trade. The government should provide TGs with employment. And then their life will be better. They see them standing on the road without any work. Food, clothing and shelter require money, and if you don’t have that money, you are compelled to do any work. It is a compulsion for them to stand on the road. The society looks at them negatively, yet it’s the same society that searchers for them on the road, for their own enjoyment. Are TGS bad people? Why are they compelled? Until people think through these questions and provide them with employment, TGS will be compelled to stand on the road, which makes me really sad.” Honey singing on the stairs of one of the few NGO in Kathmandu that work with the Nepali LGBTIQ community.
“Before, I used to consider friend more important than family but now I understand that each has its own place and importance.” Honey with her friend Pramila Adhikari, 40 years old. Pramila, like Honey, is a transgender woman with wife and kids. She is one of Honey’s closest and best friends and she counseled Honey a lot of times when she was younger and needed help with her domestic situation.
“The relationship between me and my wife is that of a good understanding friend, maybe that’s why my wife counsels me whenever anybody comments about me. She counsels me to be quiet regardless of who comments what, she tells me that their job is to make comments and our job is to listen.” Honey with her wife Gyani, 35 years old.
“When I walk on the road, people sometimes tease, insult or pass negative comments; and my heart ponders if I should just die; but my two sons Devid and Roberto give me courage as the thought emerges that I should live for my sons and family, regardless of people’s comments. It was an incident that occurred six years ago, when my eldest son was three. I was walking my son back from school when a group of 4/5 people pointed at me and said “Look! Hijara”(Nepali derogatory term for transgender) in front of my son – my son had already learnt of that term from watching T.V.” Honey while is checking on her two sons that are in the field playing with other kids.
“Then my son asked me why they had called me Hijara. That was a very painful moment for me as I was worried about the effects things could have on my son’s psyche. Later on, my son told me to wear women’s clothes if I preferred it, and that made me tear up a little with joy thinking that regardless of whatever comments people pass on me, at least my son told me this.” Honey’s family at her house during Devid’s birthday.
Drawing of Honey’s son, Devid. “Today the old lady (Aama) next house passed away. My family and I went as part of the funeral procession. My wife held AamaÕs relative, and I held some incense and went to the cremation site. When I and other members of the funeral procession reached the cremation site, a young girl – approximately 22/23 years of age, who had been mentally unsound Ð was being cremated. Watching the young girl and Aama being cremated, my heart couldnÕt bear it, and I wanted to cry. Then again, I thought, that this is the world Ð the world filled with greed and materialism. Maybe humans are suffering because they are not able to understand other humans and other beings. What is life? Is this life? My heart kept asking questions like these.” Honey praying at Shesh Narayan temple in Pharping.
“Society has a different lens when looking at me and my TGS friends because – as I mentioned before – TGS wait in the streets waiting for a client, which is absolutely wrong. My thoughts on a perfect dream life is that everybody should be respected equally, with equal rights, equal treatment and LGBTIQ get to live their life fully, without any worry. This is the perfect dream life for me.” Honey and her transgender friend Melina, 31 years old. Honey is combing Melina’s hair.
“It is difficult to live life, if only everybody had knowledge about the way to live life, then we wouldn’t find an easier and better life than this. In today’s time, my father’s and my brother’s perception of me has become a little different. And both my father and my brother treat me better. One should learn to take pride in who they are, and when they take care in finding the right path, it will not be difficult to reach the goal/destination.” “At times big obstructions and challenges appear. But I believe, if those big obstructions are tackled with, then it will take no time in reaching the right place. Sometimes I feel like crying when I think about my LGBT friends and how we have been the most marginalized and not included in any sector, and not provided with employment by the government – compelling us to be involved in sex trade and suffer with STDs and HIV.” Honey loves flowers and when she can she would use them to adorn herself.