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Martin Foreman

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Blue Diamonds in Kathmandu

Nepal 2003: As night falls, Sunil and his colleagues regularly visit Ratna Park in the centre of Kathmandu, Nepal. They are there not to take the evening air - which is frequently heavily polluted in the Himalayan valley in which it nestles - but to talk to some of the shadowy figures loitering there.

They're all men, and they're all looking for one thing - sex. Some are there to buy it, some are there to sell it and some are offering with no payment involved. But they all have one thing in common - they are sexually active with other men in a culture that strongly disapproves of their behaviour. And Ratna Park is one of the few places where they can find each other, particularly if they are young and poor.

When society rejects you, or forces you into situations that you do not like, such as marriage, you are often subject to psychological problems that heterosexual men, or gay men in more tolerant societies, do not have to face. These include low self-esteem and the pressures of living a double life - playing the dutiful married husband, father and son, when you would prefer to be sharing your life and intimacy with another man. There can be legal problems, when the police or blackmailers take an interest, fear of losing your job and the respect of your family and friends.

Then there are the health risks. You probably don't know much about sexually transmitted infections and HIV, but what you do know is almost certainly related to sex with your wife. The idea that you might have sex with another man is ridiculous, and no-one is going to tell you how to protect yourself that way. So maybe you pick up a disease and don't know you have it, or maybe you have some discomfort and you're too embarrassed to go to a doctor. In either case, your next partner is likely to pick it up and pass it on.

Many of the sex workers are very young, not necessarily homosexual, but selling sex to keep themselves and sometimes their families alive.As with all the men there, they are at the mercy of the police, thieves and blackmailers who try to attack, rob or cheat them, sometimes following them home, threatening them, asking for "gifts" of money or their watch, and sometimes beating them.

It's all very familiar to gay men in the West who lived through the fifties, sixties and seventies. But change came to the West and change is coming to countries as remote as Nepal. Which is where Sunil and his colleagues - the Blue Diamond Society - come in. There are nine of them now, working six days a week. Now there are dozen sites in Kathmandu that they visit regularly, not to mention others they know of both in the capital and elsewhere that they do not have the time or resources to cover. They are trained in STI and HIV prevention and techniques of approaching strangers without appearing either threatening or soliciting.

The outreach workers work in pairs, partly for safety. The challenges are enormous and not limited to overcoming the fear and ignorance of the men they try to meet. Sometimes the outreach workers are also targeted by blackmailers or the police. And there is a general air of suspicion, particularly at a time when terrorist attacks from Maoist guerrillas are increasing.

Their work is free form. They talk to the men, distribute condoms, provide information about common problems facing the men, and invite them to a "safe house" where they can relax, meet others and get counselling if they need. Every Friday evening there is a social meeting and on Saturdays there are films featuring men who have sex with men. And for those who can't visit, there is a telephone hotline.

Lately the outreach workers have been focusing on blackmailer and police harassment, collecting information and advising the men how to be careful and help each other, show unityif anything happens. If a blackmailer or policeman is seen causing a problem, everyone runs to help the man under threat. The tactic is beginning to work and the police and others are more likely to go for men who have not come in contact with Blue Diamond.

That change is proof for the outreach workers that they are on the right track, even though, as Sunil says "what we are doing is a piece of sand in the ocean." Their goal is to help form a community and through that community "ensure that everyone is aware of their right to practise safer sex". But they need more volunteers and more money to cover their expenses when the current grant runs out. They are appealing to new donors, but as yet have had no reply. If you want to help, contact Sunil and see what you can do

Blue Diamond members regularly face harassment and abuse by the police and others. For further information, click here.

Since this article was written, Sunil, the Blue Diamond Society and the status of gay men, lesbians and transgenders have made significant advances. See this May 2008 Los Angeles Times story. Sunil has also been elected as the country's first openly gay member of Parliament.

If you were wondering why "Blue Diamond"...? The adjective partly because Sunil studied in Belarus, where blue is slang for gay and partly because in Nepal blue represents peace. Diamond because in Buddhism it represents love and compassion.

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