I Went to the Rehearsal of Nepal’s First Gay Mr. Handsome Pageant

The shades are mirrored, the denim is frayed, and the tension is sexual. But is Nepal ready for it's first ever gay beauty contest?

The Black Eyed Peas’ “Get it started” is screaming obnoxiously from the top floor of a lime-green, dusty cement building on the outskirts of Nepal’s Thamel city. Upstairs, the contestants in the country’s first ever Gay Mr. Handsome pageant are strutting off-beat towards the front of the room, posing awkwardly, and pouting to an imaginary audience. Amid the dusty bookshelves and broken chairs, the room is a sea of frayed denim, reflective sunglasses, and sexual tension.

Down on the street—which teams with Northface wearing tourists who’d look more at home at an Everest basecamp—Nepalese men walk hand-in-hand. But homosexuality is not a thing. Don’t do that here. You can be as affectionate as you like with someone of the same sex, but don’t be gay. Not that you can show any affection to the opposite sex. You shouldn’t do that either.

As the Mr. Handsome contestants practice for the question-and-answer round, many of them tell stories of being thrown in jail by police and abused over protracted stays. Bail is tough to afford when you’re gay because identified homosexuals are denied work.

Contestant 1 is a young man named Bishoraj Adhakari whose catwalk pose includes a hip swivel and a cheeky flash of abs. He says many gay guys moonlight in the red light district. He explains in Nepali, “Most gay people work as prostitutes to support their family because they can’t get work. I have to think about my family and taking care of my father and mother and sister and it’s really hard to work in the street. If I got a job and was independent then I could support my family and fight in the society against the people who hate us.”

Among Nepalese men, homosexuality is often perceived as a product of reincarnation—punishment for poor choices in a former life. Same-sex marriage is seen as an exotic and unrealistic import from Western and European culture. Conservative tradition expects Nepalese children—especially the first-born son—to financially support their parents and siblings, and not bring shame upon the family by stepping outside the norm. That said, several of the contestants are using the pageant to come out to their families; cowboy hats, semi-nudity, bowties and all.

While their affection is hidden from the public eye, the contestants make up for it here. They sit on one another’s laps with arms wrapped tightly around waists; hands sweeping cheekily past thighs, and compliments flowing generously on who's the most handsome. They say they can be themselves here. "Love is love," is repeated often around the room.

Adding a further touch of glamour to the proceedings is a group of local transgender women, who in practice-round three, will each accompany a contestant to a dramatic Nepali song for a front-and-centre pose. They cluster together, some in tight dresses, heels, and full makeup, and others in t-shirts that proudly display the gestation of newly hormone-induced breasts.

The LGBT community takes a low profile in Nepali society. The Mr. Handsome pageant is being put on by the Blue Diamond Society as a way to fight discrimination with the power of sequins and love. Having put the call-out for contestants across its 40-something offices, and Nepal’s 27 million people, it was ecstatic to receive 35 brave entrants. Especially having expected zero.

With his I love bad boys shirt now pulled behind his head, Bishoraj introduces himself to the imaginary audience. Speaking into a water bottle which today serves as a microphone, “My pain is not because I’m gay, but because of how I’m treated because I’m gay.”

It’s been a solid rehearsal and the contestants are looking confident. The question is: can you ever really rehearse enough for potentially bringing shame upon your family?