The State of the LGBT+ Community in Contemporary Bhutan

Tshering Tshomo - Guest Author


Introduction

Bhutan is a young democracy but unlike other democratic nations, Bhutan takes pride in the fact that, it came as a 'gift from the throne' when His Majesty the fourth king of Bhutan granted the democratic rights with the enactment of The Constitution of Bhutan in 2008. However, The Bhutanese Penal Code criminalizes ‘unnatural sex....or any other sexual conduct that is against the order of nature' (Penal Code of Bhutan, 2004). A nation who was always very cautious when it came to opening its doors to the outside world, homosexuality is still a taboo subject in conservative Bhutanese societies. The minor LGBT community in Bhutan is a recent trend. Bhutanese are not vocal about the existence of the same particularly in rural Bhutan while people in urban settlements discuss the LGBT issue with some hesitance. Yet, in the present days LGBT people has begun to speak in public, advocating their existence and rights. The issue is also under deliberation in the parliament for the first time in the country's history. The essay aims to study the emergence, the current status and the future prospects of LGBT in Bhutan through studying the scarce materials available. The study would involve interviewing LGBT people from different walks of life.

Generally speaking, since Bhutanese societies are religious and traditional in natural, non-heteronormative sexuality finds little space in everyday conversation and life of the Bhutanese people. Sexual and gender marginals (referred to by the short-hand LGBT – Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders – in this article) live a closeted life in Bhutan. LGBT people are frequently not accepted by their families, neighbours and schoolmates in the communities where they live. They are seen as ‘abnormal’ members of the society. There is no same-sex marriage and LGBT couples are not legally able to adopt children; they face discrimination in employment and housing. There is little discussion of LGBT issues in rural Bhutan but people in urban areas discuss LGBT issues in private. In recent years, some members of LGBT communities have been speaking out for and about themselves, describing the struggles in their daily lives and their aspirations for the future, using state- and privately-owned media as well as social media. Both changes in social acceptance, and moves to change the law, provide reason for optimism about change to the low status of LGBT people in Bhutan.


History of LGBT in Bhutan

Bhutan has remained isolated and unaffected (at least physically) by the rapid globalization forces unless the country decided to open its doors to the outside world only in the 1960s. With such careful opening up to the world, Bhutan remained the pious, mystic nation it was for many decades. With technological advancement at the bay, gender concepts and issues were also alien to a majority of the Bhutanese. Identity, Bernard (1971) observes in her Women and Public Interest, begins in the hospital delivery room where, on the basis of anatomical cues, the child is classified as male or female. It is this act which primarily seals the child's destiny. The moment one enters the world, one is stamped the unseen social seal that designates the roles for the child depending on the biological sex the child is born with. Bhutan is not very different from her neighbouring countries in conforming to the social structure of assigning 'fixed roles' to men and women. Tashi Tsheten, the director of the local LGBTQ organisation in the country, Rainbow Bhutan narrated in an interview with Delhi based journalist, Pallavi Pundir that Bhutan is very patriarchal. There are societal norms for men and women and that it unnerved him and he had to question his identity (Tsheten, 2019). With such rigid conformity to the societal construct of 'essential men and women', hardly any material is available for tracing the history of the emergence of LGBT in Bhutan but it was only in recent years the issue started surfacing and started gaining attention gradually. Kuensel, Bhutan's lone state owned newspaper came up with an article on the LGBT issue where, for the first time, a civil servant revealed his true gender: it states, 'To start creating awareness on health issues among those like him, Passang Dorji, on March 11 went public with his identity as a MSM (men who have sex with men), making him the first Bhutanese to give the term and their hidden community a face' (Peldon, 2015). Mr. Dorji might have drawn his courage to go public about his gender identity after the nation started to take into consideration the existence of LGBT in Bhutan after the nation started celebrating International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biophobia since 2016. LGBT people formed a private support group in 2014 (Dorji, 2018).


Challenges faced by the LGBT community in Bhutan/ Current scenario of LGTB in Bhutan

LGBTQ people faced unimaginable struggles in any part of the world because of the societal backlash and rejection. The essay aims to stick to the issues of the LGBTQ population in Bhutan. Section 213 of the Penal Code states, 'a defendant shall be guilty of the offence of unnatural sex, if the defendant engages in sodomy or any other sexual conduct that us against the order of nature' (The Penal Code of Bhutan, 2004). With such laws of land in practice, the LGBT minority in the country were never able to embrace their gender whole heartedly. In his interview, Tashi Tsheten shares how difficult it was to be at school, not being able to talk to friends about his gender because of the lack of information about it (Tsheten, 2019). In a case study conducted by Rainbow Bhutan for a report under Save the Children, a heart breaking story about humiliation and bully is narrated where Karma (name changed), a self-identified transgender man, was constantly told by his teacher 'not to act like a boy'. The teacher made a tag mentioning "I AM A GIRL, I WILL NOT ACT LIKE A BOY" and made him wear the tag. He was humiliated to the point of getting depressed. The person has dropped school at the age of 18. (Outreach and Netwrking Report, 2020, 17th to 20th August). Feminine gay men go through very similar experiences in the education institutions as experienced by Sonam (name changed). He was constantly teased for being feminine and was always reminded to be masculine:

While growing up I was feminine which made me different from other students which led to name calling and eve teasing. Throughout my schooling days, I was teased and called different names and it really hurt my feelings and because of that, it has lowered my self-esteem. Even at home my parents, they would always scold me for doing feminine things. (Outreach and Networking Report).

Bhutan, being a Buddhist nation conforms greatly to his cultural and religious values. With such strong hold on religion, Bhutan adheres to and holds in high esteem the words of valued Bhutanese masters. His holiness the Dalai Lama defined sexual misconduct in relation to sexual orientation and stated that "from a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered a sexual misconduct" (Peskind, 1998). In an electronic mail written by the director of Rainbow Bhutan to various stakeholders like parliamentarians, directors of NGOs, police chief among others with regard to review section 213 and 214 of The Penal Code of Bhutan, he mentions "cases like rape, sexual harassment, violence and blackmailing is pertinent in the community but doesn't get reported because of the current sections in the Penal Code" (Tsheten, Humble appeal for repeal of section 213 and 214 of the Penal Code of Bhutan, 2020, 18th Jan.). Many incidences were rapes and harassments have gone unnoticed and unheard of are some of the many challenges the LGBT people face in the country.


The Future of LGBT Population in Bhutan

In her article, Sonam Choki hints at a dual possibility for the future of LGBT people when she says, 'my analysis of the status of LGBT people in Bhutan presents a mixed picture' (Chuki, 2019). However, the future of the LGBT population in Bhutan doesn't look as bleak as it does in her neighboring countries. Many articles found in Newspapers of Bhutan show rays of hope to the minor LGBT community in Bhutan. The Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) has introduced a procedural guidebook on the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) community in the country to understand the sensitivity and needs in handling them sometimes in 2017 (Rai, 2017). The chief of police was of the view that the LBGT population had existed for a long time but they were not open about their existence. And the same people were harassed and punished not because they were bad but because they were different and because of the lack of knowledge (Rai). The efforts of the community in finding a place for themselves in the main stream Bhutanese society has been welcomed by many stakeholders, although there might not be the same response from every Bhutanese. Tashi Tsheten and Tenzin Gyeltshen had been very vocal about their issues. They have submitted reports to many stake holders. In his report submitted to the National Council regarding the repeal of section 213 and 2014, Tsheten writes, 'today, Bhutan is being tested for our Gross National Happiness philosophy and the world will stand to witness how we truly embrace this philosophy' (Tsheten). The LGBT members said that the removing of these two clauses from the Penal Code would not only help them to come out openly but also help them in seeking out medical and mental health facilities (Dema, 2019). The coming out of the Bhutan's first gay couple and its coverage in the media are isolated episodes of increased social acceptance. The attitudes of the 3rd democratically elected government ushers in hope for the LGBT community. In a Human Rights Violation report there are mentions of LGBT rights as agendas for party campaigns in Bhutan. It says 'another party, which went to ultimately win the elections, held various consultation meetings with the Rainbow Bhutan' (SAHRA human rights violation report, 2019). With such kinds of positive outlook from the LGBT members in the country, the Bhutanese people are expected to acknowledge and accept the existence of the LGBT people in the country. The Buddhist nation has always come together for any cause, be it donation drive for sick people who cannot afford medical expense to fighting for the nation's sovereignty during the 1990s and 2003. With such common interest for the nation, the LGBT members are optimistic about the future. They are quoted as saying that since most Bhutanese are Buddhist, they hope the society will be tolerant (Chuki).


Conclusion

Bhutan, despite being a very self-absorbed nation who was very cautious to letting in the advancement and developments of the world, is opening up to once alien (to the nation) trends like LGBT. The country's negligible LGBT population is seen trying to push themselves into the main stream society. The society, although skeptical, has viewed this new trend with a compassionate eye which gave the first rays of hope to the LGBT community in the country. With discussions underway in the upper and lower houses of the country with both male and female parliamentarians saying a 'yes' to the LGBT existence in the country, a ray of hope shines on the fortunate LGBT community in Bhutan.


Celebrate Love, Celebrate Equality, Celebrate Pride

Reference

Bernard, J. (1971). Women and the public interest. USA: Transaction Publisher

Chuki, S. (2019). Being LGBT, Their Status and Rights in Bhutan. Austrialian Journal of Asian Law, Vol.20 No. 1 , 1-8.

Dema, T. (2019, June 15). Feeling recognised and included. Kuensel .

Dorji, Passang (2018) ‘Social Acceptance of LGBT Community is Growing in Bhutan’, The Bhutan Broadcasting Service, 21 May

(2020, 17th to 20th August). Outreach and Netwrking Report. Thimphu.

Peskind, Steve (1998) ‘According to Buddhist Tradition: Gays, Lesbians and the Definition of Sexual Misconduct’, 30 August

Peldon, S. (2015, March 14). Kuensel. Coming out of the closet: LGBT community faces uphill struggle to overcome both self and social stigma .

Rai, R. (2017, November 29). Police sensitised on LGBT community. Kuensel .

(2019). SAHRA human rights violation report.

The Penal Code of Bhutan. (2004). Thimphu: KMT.

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Tsheten, T. (2019, June 12). I am a queer Bhutanese, and my country is on its way to scrapping Anti-LGBTQ laws. Vice .



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