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Are LGBTQ rights blossoming in Bhutan?

Tanika Godbole
July 7, 2022

Homosexuality used to be a crime in the small Himalayan kingdom. That changed in 2021, and the LGBTQ community is becoming more accepted, but activists say more needs to be done.

Miss Bhutan Tashi Choden (r) holds flowers
In 2022, Tashi Choden Chambal became the first openly lesbian woman to be crowned 'Miss Bhutan' Image: Paljor Gyabak/ANN/picture alliance

In 2021, Bhutan decriminalized homosexualityafter King Druk Gyalpo signed off on a law amending the small Himalayan country's penal code.

Parts of the code had criminalized "sodomy or any other sexual conduct that is against the order of nature," which was a thinly veiled reference to gay sex.

Finance Minister Namgay Tshering, who had submitted the recommendation to repeal the penal code, said the sections had become a "stain" on the country's reputation.

"There is a high degree of acceptability of the LGBT+ community in our society," he said.

Last month, Tashi Choden Chombal was crowned Miss Bhutan 2022, and will become the first openly lesbian woman to represent Bhutan in the Miss Universe 2022 pageant.

"Initially, it was a little difficult to make my family understand about my sexual orientation as I come from a very 'straight' and conservative family. But things have changed now, as they have accepted me as I am," she told the South China Morning Post newspaper in an interview.

"There has been tremendous support for the first queer Miss Bhutan. She has become a queer icon now. This is reflective of the changing times," said Namgay Zam, director of the Journalists’ Association of Bhutan and LGBTQ rights activist.

"There are no separate spaces for the queer population, but that's really because people are not barred entry based on gender. Even the Royal Bhutan Police are queer-sensitive now," Zam told DW. 

Raising more awareness of LGBTQ rights

Almost 75% of Bhutan's population of just over 770,000 practices Buddhism, and its constitution recognizes it as the state religion. Buddhist philosophy does not oppose homosexuality.

However, a year after decriminalization of homosexuality, LGBTQ activists say there is still little awareness about members of their community and the issues they face.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about the community, such as homosexuality being a choice," Tashi Tsheten, a rights activist with Queer Voices Bhutan, told DW

"There is also a lack of awareness about different terminology, and what it means. People are still learning, and due to decriminalization, they have become more open to learning," Tsheten added.

"People from the community don't often talk about violence or persecution that they face," the activist said.

Additionally, same-sex marriage is not yet legally recognized in Bhutan.

Bhutan transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional state in 2008. Its penal code was set up in 2004. Much of the criminal code was adapted from the US legal system, according to research by legal scholars Dema Lham and Stanley Yeo.

However, the sections prohibiting sodomy and "unnatural sex" were similar to those found in some other South Asian nations.

'A lot of progress'

"Transwomen were the first visible members of the community here. They have told me that Bhutanese society in general is quite accepting," said activist Zam. 

"Visibility has increased through advocacy by organizations. Even before the decriminalization of homosexuality, several transwomen were able to officially change their names and gender," Zam added. 

Physiotherapist Passang Dorji came out on television in 2015 before decriminalization.

"Coming out on TV and telling my story, I think that the younger generation was inspired. This was mainly to make visible that our LGBT community exists in our beautiful Himalayan country, where we measure happiness more than the gross economic product. That was a silence-breaking moment for Bhutanese LGBT," he said during the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum in 2016.

Speaking about queer issues has since become easier, as the change in law provided a platform for advocacy and awareness.

"The government has become more accepting to our community, the civil society is opening up, so there is a lot of progress," Tsheten said.

"The younger generations are very open now, after decriminalization. They talk about LGBT issues and fully express themselves. But the same cannot be said for queer people from older generations, who came out before decriminalization. They face a lot of stigma and problems with their families. So it is all very subjective," he added.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn