KATHMANDU (Reuters Life!) - The first ever shelter for ostracized gays has opened in Nepal -- a growing sign, say activists, that the impoverished, conservative Himalayan nation is becoming more aware of the rights of its gay population.
Homosexuality is taboo in this majority-Hindu country and while there are no specific laws against gays or same-sex marriages, "unnatural sex" can result in up to one year in jail.
Run by Nepal's leading gay rights group, the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), the home and adjoining hospice open to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders provides shelter to people who have HIV/Aids and have been abused and abandoned by their families.
"These people need care and are very late with the treatment. They need to be looked after in their last days of life and even to perform their last rites after death," said Sunil Babu Pant, BDS's founder.
"The families don't even (want to) receive their dead bodies. So the BDS organizes their burial or cremation."
The shelter, tucked away in a quiet residential area in the outskirts of the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, can accommodate up to 30 people who receive free medical care from doctors, as well as a place to stay.
There is no sign board outside the brick-walled compound -- a deliberate attempt, say caretakers, to avoid local attention in a country where many will not even rent their premises to homosexuals.
People who visit the shelter are reluctant to talk about their problems, but happy for the support.
"It is a good place for people like us and we get good treatment here," said 27-year-old Raju Baral, who tested positive for HIV in 2007 and left home then so he wouldn't be an embarrassment for his family.
Since coming to the shelter, he has gained weight and his health has improved, he added.
Nepal, famous for being the home of Mount Everest, is emerging from a decade-long civil war which ended in 2006 and has become more gay-friendly in recent years.
In 2007, the Supreme Court ordered the government to end discrimination against gays and guarantee sexual minorities the same rights as other citizens.
Gay beauty contests are held and same-sex marriages are now taking place. Earlier this week, two American women tied the knot as a Hindu priest chanted Vedic hymns in a public religious ceremony outside a major shrine near Kathmandu.
There is even a travel agency run by gay men in Nepal, which offers same-sex wedding packages to the world's tallest peak, as well as to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha.
A specially elected assembly is now currently drafting the country's first constitution since the abolition of its monarchy in 2008, which is expected to guarantee the rights of marginalized groups, including gays and lesbians.
"I think after the restoration of democracy there is a big demand for inclusion of various groups, including the sexual minority," said lawyer Sabin Shrestha, who works on gay rights issues. "Existence of sexual minorities is a reality and we are more and more positive toward their issues compared to earlier days."
Reporting by TrustLaw, www.trust.org/trustlaw; editing by Nita Bhalla and Elaine Lies