A different version of this article originally appeared in My Republica on 4/11/2017.
The Prime Minister’s press adviser, Bishwash Bishwakarma, is gay. The Prime Minister knows about it and believes “people shouldn’t be judged on the basis of their sexuality,” but by their work and virtue. Pragmatic and open-minded, her name is Aasha Singh and she is the first woman Prime Minister of Nepal. She is also a fictional character, the protagonist of Search – Nepal’s TV series Singha Durbar (now a finalist at the 2017 Classy Awards).
Bishwar marks the introduction in the series of a strong, independent, and successful gay character, defying stereotypes of the LGBT community. A quick review of the media portrayal of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender characters in Nepali fiction provides evidence that most LGBT roles are stereotypical, making a typecast of the LGBT community as either supporting comedic characters or victims. Bishwar is different; he is a role model, somebody people can look up to and admire.
Tsering Rhitar Sherpa, the director of Singha Durbar, recalls the discussion that he had, along with our local team, while developing the character. “A gay character … as a role model? The very concept was new and liberating,” says Sherpa. The production team conducted extensive research in order to shun stereotypes, including interviews with members of the LGBT community.
After reviewing the past portrayal of LGBT individuals in Nepali media, the production team decided to build a strong, highly influential, opinionated character, with a knack for activism. Considering the influence of media in shaping people’s behavior, the character was constructed with care, and attention was paid to ensure his portrayal did not harm the perceptions of the LGBT community in any way. “The character is gay, but he doesn’t demand people’s sympathy. By introducing a strong gay character, we wanted people to empathize with the LGBT community,” shares Yubakar Raj Rajkarnikar, the producer of the series.
Most media and advocacy campaigns on LGBT rights highlight problems, but fail to depict the successes of LGBT people. Gay characters are mostly shown in supporting roles, helping the show’s heterosexual heroes. The ‘hero treatment’ of heterosexual characters often overshadows the competence of LGBT characters, who are portrayed as weak and powerless. “The LGBT movement […] is about the possibility of change, and establishing an inclusive and enabling society. We need to portray LGBT characters as ‘heroes’,” argues Rajkarnikar. This can only be achieved if the media refrain from depicting the LGBT community as victims, and give them influential, powerful roles.
Nepal has made great strides in securing LGBT rights, and one can confidently say that Nepali audiences are ready to see a new portrayal of the LGBT community. Media advocacy campaigns complemented with evidence-based storytelling, such as Singha Durbar, create empowering content, pave the way for the acceptance of homosexuality, and fight stereotypes that fuel homophobia.
Communicators and media practitioners are often worried about ‘reality’ and its repercussions. They become caught up in questions of “How real is too real?” getting caged into a mechanism of self-censorship that results in a sanitized portrayal of social issues, failing to make a great impact.
The production team of Singha Durbar faced a similar dilemma: whether or not to showcase an intimate scene between the gay couple, Bishwash and his partner Dinesh. “We were not sure how the audience would react to two men cuddling, and caressing each other. But then, we wanted to give out a strong message. […] We wanted to keep it real,” shares the Director.
The TV series has not only brought attention to an issue that was once taboo, but has also highlighted its political undertones, creating the conditions for a discussion on equality, inclusion, and freedom of choice.
With the growing demand for representation of positive LGBT characters in the media there has been an increase in the number of gay roles, but representation alone cannot change people’s perceptions. The LGBT characters we see must have substance and strength; they should have pivotal, positive roles, so that the larger audience is familiarized with their challenges. This is the key to changing behavior.
We need a fearless and unbiased media to tear down stereotypes and promote LGBT people as role models, not victims.
Ayush Joshi is a Communications Coordinator at Search for Common Ground, based in Kathmandu, Nepal.