By Gopal Sharma
KATHMANDU, Feb 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Nepali transgender Bhakti Shah married almost a decade ago, his dream of being able to walk openly, hand in hand with his wife, through the narrow streets of Kathmandu seemed close to impossible to fulfill.
Married in a small Hindu temple with little fanfare and a handful of well-wishers, the couple were ostracized by their families and their community because of Shah's sexual orientation and have endured years of discrimination.
But a new report recommending that the Himalayan nation allow same-sex marriage has given hope to Shah, his wife and many other sexual minorities who have been forced into hiding.
"We are happy and excited," said 28-year-old Shah, who says he was born a female, but by the age of 13 realized that he was actually male.
"My family does not recognize my sexual orientation or accept my partner. We live in fear and terror. We hope the government feels our pain and fulfills our dreams of openly living together and walking as husband and wife."
Officials from both the ruling center-left coalition and other parties have refused to say whether they will back the recommendations, which were submitted by the government-appointed panel of experts last week.
But the changes, if built into the new constitution in the coming months, will not only allow same-sex couples to marry, but will also legalize gay sex - making Nepal the first nation in the conservative South Asia region to do so.
"They (same-sex couples) will be entitled to pension or any other benefits, inheritance, can register their marriage with government agencies, can receive parental property," human rights lawyer Hari Phuyal, a panel member, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
If same-sex marriage is allowed, gay sex will no longer be a crime, he added.
Nepal has become increasingly progressive since a decade-long Maoist rebellion ended in 2006, but there is still no clear legislation on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
In 2007, the Supreme Court ordered the government to end discrimination against gays and put in place measures to guarantee their equal rights as citizens.
That landmark judgment was lauded by activists and emboldened many from the LGBT community to come out.
Same-sex marriages have taken place in public - though they are still not recognized in law - and gay pride parades and beauty contests or "Pink Pageants" have been held in the capital Kathmandu.
In 2012, a 19-year-old Nepali boy hit the headlines when he became the first person in the majority-Hindu country to travel to Thailand for a sex-change operation.
And last month the government announced plans to issue passports with a third gender category for sexual minorities.
However, under a 161-year-old law, "unnatural" or gay sex remains illegal, with a maximum sentence of one year in jail.
Activists say that as a result, many from the LGBT community still face abuse from their families and communities and endure discrimination in colleges, government offices and hospitals.
Same-sex couples are often forcibly separated by their families, who arrange marriages with members of the opposite sex, activists say. Such marriages break up or force couples to live in pain, and even drive some to suicide.
Shah agrees, and says the government must adopt the panel's recommendations, legalizing both gay sex and same-sex marriages.
"When we go out at social gatherings and introduce ourselves as husband and wife, people do not believe us and make a joke out of us and tease us," he said.
"At my home, my family does not consider my wife as their daughter-in-law and I face the same treatment when I go to the family of my wife. In the absence of legal proof of marriage, we cannot even get the property if something happens to one of us."
(Editing by Nita Bhalla)