By Sangay Zam
The affirmation of the existence of a Bhutanese gay population only happened with the creation of the Facebook page and Twitter handle “LGBT Bhutan” (Lesbian/ Gay/ Bisexual/Transgender) about six months ago.
“I liked boys since I was little, I did not find that strange” says one of the LGBT administrators who wanted to be called J. “There was no conflict within me”.
Another administrator, K, has a different story. K was homophobic for 20 years of his life denying his innate sexual orientation. “It’s a frightening feeling (coming out), but once I accepted who I am; that I cannot hide from my sexuality, I came out to one of my best friends. I did not choose to come out by deciding who would or would not understand me. I came out to people who are close to me and whom I know I will associate with for the rest of my life. Anyone else would have made it my prime identity.”
Both administrators admit to having been inspired by Dechen- one of the only two transgenders who have chosen to live in the public eye as women.
Dechen made news when she wanted to wear a Kira to school when she was 16. Never before had such a case presented itself in Bhutanese society. “I think of myself as a normal girl, I never stop myself from going out and having fun,” Dechen says. She shares that other transgenders like her do not want to disclose their identities, as the “self-stigma” is too great. But, she says discrimination is not very widespread in Bhutanese society.
Homosexuality is Unnatural
Although, Bhutanese society has been quite accepting of transgenders, many are quick to dub homosexuality “unnatural”. While it has been scientifically proven that one’s sexual orientation is not a personal choice and is biological, many Bhutanese are suspicious and downright judgmental about homosexuality.
Factual awareness in Bhutan is a mere shadow of the dominant gay stereotypes propagated by popular culture through films, books and social media.
“It isn’t as if I haven’t tried to be “normal”, I’ve tried that my whole life, but being normal is abnormal for me. If there is holy water that you can sprinkle on me to make me straight then please do so!” cries K in earnest.
“But Bhutanese do not use their personal morality to impose religious or moral views on others”, Ben Gagnon, a former Wheaton exchange student at the Royal Thimphu College points out. He discovered this after carrying out an on-campus survey on homosexuality.
There were 150 participants in the survey that was probably the first of its kind to have been done in the country. About 60 percent of the respondents believe homosexuality is immoral but more than 50 percent also say homosexuality should be accepted and homosexuals protected from discrimination and harm.
Homosexuality is Criminal
Ben who is, incidentally, gay expected Bhutan to be very homophobic; he admits his view had been coloured by a Wikipedia search that threw up Bhutan’s Penal clauses criminalising homosexuality and not because of anyone else’s experiences.
Clauses 213 and 214 in the Penal Code of Bhutan criminalise homosexual relationship. It 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. “The offence of unnatural sex shall be a petty misdemeanor,” states clause 214.
In spite of the clauses, no arrests of this nature have been made since the Penal Code’s birth in 2004.
“The issue is when the law is there and if people do not enforce it, is it okay? With time, as society progresses and thoughts broaden, homosexuality may need to be revisited. In a democratic society, it becomes even more important because democracy promotes liberty”, shares Gasa’s Member of Parliament in the National Council, Sangay Khandu.
The clause may have come into existence with reason but it has antagonised many young Bhutanese who belong to the LGBT community and their “allies” (friends and supporters) in modern day Bhutan who see it as an anomaly in a normally lenient society.
This law although dormant, has had an effect on many gay and transgender Bhutanese who want to remain hidden and also carry on “relations and activities” online and off mainstream society’s radar to avoid being criminalised and losing their dignities.
Stigma could lead to Health Issues
“Gay people are having sex, you know”, says K. “But gay Bhutanese have a very carefree attitude towards sex- safe sex is not important”, adds Ben.
The gay group is therefore in a high health risk category because they may not be too forthcoming about sexual as well as mental health issues.
The Health Ministry may have sensed this as well, as they are currently mapping the MSM (men who have sex with men) and transgender population in the country. “This is not to find a number but to understand the health barriers that exist for such a population and provide strategic health interventions”, explains an official who does not want to be named.
The mapping has been carried out in seven dzongkhags but is limited to an urban population due to the prevalence of HIV cases among such inhabitants.
The findings are expected to be shared later, this year. The officials (who do not want to be named) shared that the Ministry considers it important to ensure that health services are inclusive irrespective of one’s status/gender/ sexual orientation.
Tackling the mental health of such a population may not be as straightforward.
“I was deeply conflicted, an introvert and almost always angry”, K describes himself before coming out and embracing his homosexuality. “Look at me now, I am happy and an extrovert, no one would have imagined me to be like this, not even my closest friends”. K found the strength to accept his homosexuality through America’s Talk-Show Celebrity, Ellen DeGeneres, and the online “It Gets Better Project”.
What would happen to another youth, who is at odds with his/her identity, has no access to the online world, and no one to talk to? Personality disorders, depression and suicide are definite and tragic consequences.
Buddhism does not condemn homosexuality
Bhutan is seen as a highly tolerant society and with a majority of the population being Buddhist, the LGBT administrators are quite hopeful about acceptance.
The Director of the Institute of Language and Culture Studies, Lungtaen Gyatsho, says, “Buddhism believes only in universal principles which are beyond the interpretation of notions. The rest are based on notions which are largely culture-based and time-bound. Sex is an activity and for that matter, homosexuality is also an activity and therefore, an individual choice.”
He said the debate between what is ‘natural sex’ and ‘unnatural sex’ can go on and on because notions are based on culture and no culture is right or wrong. Buddhism has no serious reason to condemn homosexuality as long as it is an activity of consensus between two persons and carried out in private. “However, notions can vary from culture to culture, society to society and country to country but no notion is right or wrong on its own”.
K first came out to his brother. “I sort of told my parents (a few weeks ago), it didn’t go so well, but it was not so bad either”, says K.
If it is not black and white anymore, perhaps it is time to look with an open mind at the rainbow?