KATHMANDU Clad in pink, blue and yellow clothes, more than 250 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) athletes took part in a sports festival in the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, at the weekend, billed by organisers as the first in South Asia.
About 1,500 spectators cheered as the athletes, waving rainbow coloured flags, marched at the Dasharath Stadium in the heart of Kathmandu in the opening ceremony of the three-day event that showed how attitudes are changing, albeit slowly, in the conservative, Hindu-majority nation.
The athletes were accompanied by masked dancers and Panche baja -- musicians playing Nepal's traditional instruments including pipes and drums.
"After I participated in the tournament, my confidence has increased," said 29-year-old Bakti Shah, who took part in football and athletics.
American Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis, on a visit to Nepal to support the rights of sexual minorities, kicked off the event at a football match, wearing a Nepali cloth cap and cream-coloured Buddhist prayer scarf.
"Initially I was a little worried whether we will be able to hold such a big event in a major public venue," said well-known activist Sunil Babu Pant, founder of the Blue Diamond Society, a leading gay rights group.
"We have done it and proved that we can do," added Pant, a former member of parliament.
Homosexuality is still taboo in Nepal, which does not have clear laws about the rights of the increasingly assertive gay community.
Same sex marriages have taken place in public but wedding certificates are not given by authorities as there are no laws that recognise such unions. People found guilty of "unnatural sex" face up to one year in jail.
Until about six years ago, homosexuals were beaten on the streets of Kathmandu and arrested.
"Personal attitudes in the conservative society are slowly changing. It is a good thing," Pant said.
Nepal, home to Mount Everest and the birthplace of Buddha, emerged from 10 years of Maoist conflict in 2006, after which the country began to increasingly recognise the rights of the underprivileged communities.
In 2007, the country's Supreme Court ordered the government to do away with laws that discriminate against gays and guarantee them the same rights as other citizens.
Gay beauty contests are now organised and held, and gay pride parades have been held in several major cities, including Kathmandu. Early this year, a teenage boy who underwent a sex-change operation in Thailand was welcomed home by his family as the country's first known transsexual.
Gays still face numerous difficulties. Schools and colleges won't accept them, and they have trouble getting national identity cards in the gender they prefer.
But ordinary Nepalis were positive about the event.
"I think it is good they have assembled here for the sports tournament," said a 24-year-old college student Raju Shakya.
"They should be entitled to the same rights as others without discrimination. They are also human beings like us." (Reporting by Gopal Sharma, editing by Elaine Lies)