While awareness around the LGBTQ+ community has increased in recent years, the majority continue to hide their sexual orientation due to the risk of verbal and physical assault.
While Bhutan is predominantly Buddhist and teaches values like compassion and tolerance, its laws are highly unfavorable toward the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer (LGBTQ) community that forms a tiny segment of its society.
According to informal records of the community, there are 92 registered LGBTQ+ members including one lesbian, 47 gay men, 12 bisexual men, two bisexual women, 14 transgender men and 16 transgender women. Among the registered members, only about 20 are publicly open about their gender identity and sexual orientation, while about 15 members are open to some and the rest have not told anyone.
Homosexuality in Bhutan has been criminalised. Clause 213 of the Penal Code of Bhutan states that a “defendant shall be guilty of the offence of unnatural sex, if the defendant engages in sodomy or any other sexual conduct that is against the order of nature” while clause 214 states the “offence of unnatural sex shall be a petty misdemeanour”.
Though some Bhutanese – especially the literate lot – are more open and accepting of the LGBTQ+, the community still remains largely misunderstood.
Twenty-six-year-old Pema Dorji is a gay man. When he was in school, he was subjected to verbal abuse and was called degrading names by his peers.
Tenzin Gyeltshen, another gay man, realised that he was homosexual fairly recently. “It has been just three years and this period has been liberating for me especially in terms of understanding who I am and who I want to be,” said the 25 year old.
Gyeltshen remembers that when he was in school, he was unaware of his sexual orientation and of the LGBTQ+ community. He recalls that he was called names, which others associated with how he walked, talked or even with who he befriended.
He was branded as “a boy who had both the male and the female biological reproductive organs”.
“My friends were very curious about what I had under my gho (traditional attire for men in Bhutan). I had to build an invisible wall around me just to protect myself from being harassed or teased. For that reason, I didn’t have many friends; I became anti-social,” Gyeltshen said.
Today, he is more comfortable with his sexual orientation and less concerned about how the society views him, though a part of him is still afraid to open up.
“It is not a secret anymore that LGBTQ+ individuals are present in the country and it’s also not a secret that we have a law that criminalises sodomy and our community remains wary of that law,” said Gyeltshen who works for the LGBT+ community in Bhutan.
He has also come across cases where individuals use this particular law to blackmail and threaten LGBTQ+ people.
Apart from the stigma, discrimination and harassment that the community faces, there are several other risks that make them vulnerable.
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According to Integrated Biological and Behavioral Surveillance (IBBS) survey among vulnerable and key populations at higher risk in Bhutan, 2016, over 42% of the transgender women and 23% of gay and bisexual men have attempted multiple suicides, which has led to deterioration in their health and self-esteem.
Majority of the community (70%) resorted to alcohol and about 24% resorted to drugs to cope with the pressure. The LGBTQ+ community, especially transgender women and effeminate gay and bisexual men, are often a victims of extreme physical and sexual violence (20%), according to the IBBS survey.
In terms of sexual health, about 76% of the community member have access to condoms and only 59% of the community member have access to lubricant, which puts the remaining population at risk of HIV, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), hepatitis A, B and C, anal rupture and other bacterial infections.
Although gay and bisexual men are 19 times more vulnerable and transgender women are approximately 34-47 times more vulnerable to HIV infection, till date Bhutan has only one recorded case of HIV infection in the community.
About 3.3% of gay men and bisexual men had a history of syphilis infection while the prevalence of syphilis infection among the transgender women was 25%. The prevalence of other STIs in the community is a risk factor for HIV in the coming future, according to the IBBS survey.
Deyon Phuntsho, the deputy coordinator for the informal network of LGBTQ+ community in Bhutan, Rainbow Bhutan: Celebrating Diversity, said there are several ways the society can help the LGBTQ+ community.
“Firstly, they can start by keeping an open mind. Being guided by a religion that teaches compassion, the society is quite tolerant, but they are bound too much by the traditional and stereotypical gender roles and sexual orientations,” he said, adding that this creates a detrimental environment for community members to come out and they are often forced to adapt to the traditional gender roles which are contrary to their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.
Deyon also said that the authorities can help the community members by ridding bias.
“Authorities at school can help promote anti-bullying norms whereby the community members whose SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression) does not come in line with the traditional norms are not bullied or harassed for who they are, thus creating an enabling environment for all,” he said.
According to well-known Bhutanese journalist Namgay Zam, the law should be amended so that LGBTQ+ people have equal rights and liberties.