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Nepal's gay community parades in festival as lawmakers prepare to legalize same-sex marriage

Hundreds of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transvestites, tooting horns and ringing chimes, took to the streets of Nepal's capital Monday for a colorful parade celebrating Gaijatra, a Hindu festival to remember the dead that is gleefully overtaken each year by the country's gay community.

Thousands of Nepalese lined the narrow, cobblestoned streets of the old city to catch a glimpse of those parading with rainbow-colored balloons along the 1 kilometer (half-mile) route from the tourist hub of Thamel to the central square of Katmandu. Some wore the traditional dress of their ethnic communities, while many others were painted in makeup and wearing cross dress.

In this socially conservative Hindu-majority nation, the festival was traditionally the only day people felt free to cross-dress. But social norms are changing fast as this fledgling Himalayan democracy emerges from centuries of religious monarchy.

A government committee is recommending same-sex marriage be guaranteed in a new constitution — an unprecedented move that would give gay and lesbian couples the right to adopt, buy joint property, open joint bank accounts and inherit from one another.

All of the country's political parties have already backed the idea. Many within the country's small gay community hope this means the legislation can be passed with a new constitution by the end of the year.

"When we gather again next year, we hope we are able celebrate the new law," said 28-year-old Bipin Lamichane, who wants to marry the partner he has lived with for five years. But changing laws, he said, may be easier than changing minds in a country where arranged marriage is still the norm, and up to a decade ago homosexuals were routinely jailed for up to three months on accusations of "unnatural sex."

"Sometimes even if we get laws in writing, there is a big problem of implementation," Lamichane said. "There is still more that needs done."

Bhakti Shah, who was fired from the army in 2007 when officers suspected her relationship with another woman also enlisted, is still hiding her relationship from landlords and neighbors.

"People still think we are two friends or sisters sharing an apartment," Shah said. "How can we tell everyone we are a couple when we don't have anything in paper to back it?"

New legal rights and status would give Shah and others the documentation to prove a union. But there are still some who disapprove.

"Whatever happens inside closed doors should remain there," said retired government worker Raja Sharma, 62. "This is ridiculous, marriage is a sacred thing between a husband and wife that has worked for centuries, and it should be left alone. Nepal has enough problems."