By Ravi Nessman
The Associated Press
KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) _ Nepal wants to paint Mount Everest pink.
It wants gay honeymooners trekking through the Himalayas.
It wants to host the world’s highest same-sex wedding at Everest base camp.
But mainly, the conservative Hindu nation wants a chunk of the multibillion dollar gay tourist market to help pull it out of poverty.
That quest _ brushing aside historical biases in pursuit of economic opportunity _ is symbolic of one of the gay rights movement’s most stunning successes.
Just five years ago, police were beating gays and transsexuals in the streets.
Now, the issue of gay rights is almost passe here.
Nepal has an openly gay parliamentarian, it is issuing “third gender” identity cards and it appears set to enshrine gay rights _ and possibly even same-sex marriage _ in a new constitution.
“(It) is not an issue anymore, for anybody,” said Vishnu Adhikari, a 21-year-old lesbian. “Society has basically accepted us.”
That acceptance has become a major marketing opportunity for a country cursed by desperate poverty, but blessed with majestic beauty.
Tourism is one of the main drivers of Nepal’s economy, worth about $350 million last year, and government officials are determined to double tourism to 1 million visitors next year.
They hope gay tourists will be far more lucrative than the backpackers who stay in cheap hotels here and travel on shoestring budgets.
“They do have a lot of income … they are high-spending consumers,” said Aditya Baral, spokesman for the Nepal Tourism Board. “If they behave well, if they have money, we don’t discriminate.”
The driving force is Sunil Pant, a member of parliament, the nation’s most prominent gay activist and founder of the new Pink Mountain tour company.
The nation’s mountains, food and culture are a natural tourist magnet, he said. Additionally, gay tourists could get married at Everest base camp and honeymoon on an elephant safari — though since Nepal doesn’t marry foreigners, such weddings would have no legal status, he said.
“With that, money will come here and jobs will be created,” he said.
A growing segment of the gay tourism market — worth $63 billion in the U.S. alone — craves adventure travel and exotic locations, especially if they are seen as hospitable to gay travelers, said John Tanzella, president of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association.
As for an Everest wedding, “I think there would certainly be a niche within our community that would be very excited for this type of memorable experience,” he said.
Pant says Nepal also has a huge advantage in appealing to this niche because its neighbors in South Asia _ some of them with laws outlawing homosexual sex _ are not seen as gay-friendly destinations.
“There is virtually no competition,” he said.
Nepal’s own journey into gay acceptance has been a near-revolution, born out of chaos and conflict that decimated the nation’s traditional political and social systems.
A few years ago, the kingdom was torn by a civil war between the government and Maoist insurgents, and fighters on both sides preyed on marginalized communities and outcasts.
Transgender men, known as metis or eunuchs, were often robbed, beaten and sometimes raped at Maoist checkpoints, and again at government checkpoints, said Pant, head of the Blue Diamond Society, a gay rights group. Other than the metis, homosexuality was almost never discussed in the rural areas, where tradition pushed people into arranged marriages at a young age, he said.
Then, in 2006, the government signed a peace accord with the Maoists. Street protests forced the king to end his brief grab for absolute power and the centuries old monarchy was abolished.
In 2007, the Supreme Court ordered the government to draw up new laws to protect gay rights.
Now, the gay community stands to win big as the country writes a new constitution aimed at remaking the entire government, turning the nation into a republic and cementing peace.
The government has issued a handful of third gender identity cards. The next census is expected to allow respondents to choose between male, female or third gender.
Parliament is working on a same-sex marriage law even as the constitution drafters are incorporating gay rights into the document expected to be ratified later this year, said Pant.
“It’s a land of minorities and we support each other,” Pant said. “We all have been marginalized so long and it makes sense that we extend solidarity to each other’s rights and issues.”
In a sign of how much the nation of 30 million has changed, the gay community faces no real opposition in its fight for expanded rights, said Ameet Dhakal, editor in chief of the Republica daily.
The major parties, battling for votes, see no benefit to alienating a community that Pant says numbers at least 200,000, and religious leaders here generally stay out of politics.
Dev Gurung, a senior Maoist party leader who was once viewed as a strong opponent of gay rights, now publicly supports legal protections for the community.
“People, including lawmakers and government officials, were not aware that people like them even existed in the past,” he said.
Homosexuality has now entered the cultural lexicon. There is a weekly TV show called “Third Gender” and writers and filmmakers have begun exploring society’s treatment of homosexuals.
Poet Usha Sherchan published a short story last year in a literary magazine about a closeted gay man struggling with the pressure to get married. She thought broaching the subject was a risky move. Instead, she was inundated with praise.
“I was shocked,” she said.
Despite the rapid gains, Pant recognizes the nation’s sensitivities, and wants to ensure that an influx of gay tourists doesn’t turn Nepal into a sex tourism destination.
“They should come for the trekking, mountaineering, the culture, food … and for weddings, of course,” he said.