Happiness and Harmonization as Bhutan Decriminalizes Homosexuality

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Jan 21, 2021
by Salzburg Global Seminar
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Happiness and Harmonization as Bhutan Decriminalizes Homosexuality

Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum Fellows help end colonial-era laws against “unnatural sex” in Bhutan Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum Fellows from Bhutan (clockwise from top left): Pema Dorji, Ugyen Tshering, Passang Dorji, Namgay Zam, Madan Kumar Chhetri and Ugyen Wangdi

The Himalayan nation of Bhutan has become the latest country in the world to finally decriminalize homosexuality – a move met with much joy by the LGBT community in a country renowned for its “Gross National Happiness” index.

Bhutanese Salzburg Global Fellows had been prominently active in the decriminalization efforts in their country.

In recent years, while advances in trans rights had been made – trans men and women are able to obtain official identification aligned with their gender identity, as one LGBT Forum Fellow from Bhutan was able to gain in 2017 – Bhutan, like much of the region, had previously maintained colonial-era anti-sodomy laws, effectively criminalizing homosexuality and marginalizing the LGBT community in the country.

The move on December 10, 2020 to finally decriminalize homosexuality comes following a long period of legal “harmonization” launched in 2008 to align all of Bhutan’s existing laws with the new constitution (the country’s first written constitution), which guaranteed many fundamental human rights.

“The Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum is thrilled about the decision of the Bhutan parliament to decriminalize homosexuality with an absolute majority and warmly congratulates our six Bhutan Forum Fellows who worked so hard to make this happen: activists Pema DorjiPassang DorjiNamgay Zam and Ugyen Tshering, and Bhutan Parliamentarians Ugyen Wangdi and Madan Chhetri,” says Klaus Mueller, founder and chair of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum.

In 2016, Wangdi and Chhetri requested to join the program The Many Faces of LGBT Inclusion in Thailand as part of the harmonization process, specifically looking at Sections 213 and 214 of the Bhutanese penal code which criminalized “unnatural sex”, widely interpreted as homosexuality. 

The two parliamentarians were accompanied by Bhutanese LGBT activists Pema Dorji and Passang Dorji (no relation) who shared with great honesty the repercussions legal, cultural and family exclusions had on their lives. 

When asked in 2016, immediately following their participation in the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum program, what were the most important insights they had gained through their participation in the Forum, Wangdi noted three things: the importance of terminology, the challenges faced by LGBT people with regards to families and marriage and state-sponsored LGBT extremism.

“That struck me most because anything can happen if law is not correct and right and it can affect the community, society and country as a whole,” he reflected.

Passang Dorji was also positive about the chance to forge connections with the parliamentarians, remarking in 2016: “I felt the highest level of happiness in talking face-to-face, and discussing one-on-one about our issues, policies and laws that our country is reviewing.”

These new relations meant that upon returning to Bhutan, Wangdi and Chhetri worked not only with their colleagues in parliament but also with their newfound colleagues from the Forum. 

Speaking to Reuters news agency after the passage of the new legislation, Wangdi said that the bill had passed unopposed with 63 of the total 69 members of both houses of parliament voting in favor; six members were absent. “Homosexuality will not be considered as unnatural sex now,” he added.

“It is wonderful to see that parliamentarian Ugyen Wangdi then became the vice chairperson of the parliamentary joint panel leading the process to explicitly exclude homosexuality from the definition of ‘unnatural sex’ through an exception clause,” said Mueller.

Bhutan activists found allies outside of parliament also, in particular Namgay Zam, executive director of the Journalists; Association of Bhutan, who joined the LGBT* Forum in 2019 at the program Advancing Legal and Social Equality in South Asia held in Nepal. Zam worked closely with Pema Dorji and other LGBT activists to keep decriminalization at the forefront of the harmonization agenda, supported by other activists within the LGBT* Forum network with experience of overturning such legislation in their own countries.

Reflecting on the historic ruling in December, Mueller said: “Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum is excited to have being part of this transformation process that accelerates recent legal changes in South Asia that advance LGBT equality.” 

* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, and we would wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender non-conforming identities.