Happiness and Harmonization – LGBT Laws in Bhutan

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Jan 29, 2018
by Louise Hallman
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Happiness and Harmonization – LGBT Laws in Bhutan

In the land of happiness, LGBT people are still largely invisible and criminalized. But constitutional change is leading to legal harmonization and eventually greater LGBT equality in Bhutan

As the country that originated the concept of “Gross National Happiness,” a Buddhism-inspired alternative to Gross Domestic Product, the tiny mountainous country of Bhutan has a reputation for peace and harmony. Prominent Bhutanese Buddhist teacher, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, has spoken positively on LGBT rights, saying:

“Your sexual orientation has nothing to do with understanding or not understanding the truth. You could be gay, you could be lesbian, you could be straight, we never know which one will get enlightened first… Tolerance is not a good thing. If you are tolerating this, it means that you think it’s something wrong that you will tolerate. But you have to go beyond that – you have to respect.”

Despite this positive Buddhist declaration and its peaceful reputation, Bhutan, like much of the region, still maintains colonial-era anti-sodomy laws, effectively criminalizing homosexuality. The marginalization that Bhutanese LGBT activists and Salzburg Global Fellows have shared at the LGBT Forum points to a distinctly unhappy existence.

However – this is slowly changing, as a harmonization of another kind is taking place.

At the turn of the century, the former king of Bhutan initiated a process to write the country’s first written constitution. When it was enacted in 2008 by the country’s first democratically elected government, a long process was launched to harmonize all of Bhutan’s existing laws with the new constitution that guaranteed many fundamental human rights.

Under such rights, trans men and women can now gain official identification aligned with their gender identity – as one LGBT Forum Fellow from Bhutan was able to gain this year.

With the harmonization process still ongoing, in 2016, two Bhutanese National Assembly members took part in the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, held in Chiang Rai, Thailand, alongside two Bhutanese LGBT rights activists. Parliamentarians Madan Kumar Chhetri and Ugyen Wangdi attended the Forum as part of a fact-finding mission because, although there are clearly LGBT Bhutanese (the country has been represented at two of the five Salzburg Global LGBT Forum sessions), they are not prominent in society, as trans activist Ugyen Tshering had shared with the Forum in 2015.

Passang Dorji, one of the Bhutanese LGBT activists who also attended the Forum in 2016, has sought to change this by publicly discussing his homosexuality on national television in the country. However, despite his and others’ efforts to gain visibility, this was the first time that Chhetri and Wangdi had ever (knowingly) met anyone who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. In the course of the five days of listening to panel discussions, taking part in working groups on the importance of family, and speaking privately to other Fellows from around the world, the two parliamentarians met dozens of members of a community they barely had known existed.

When asked on the last day 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.

Once the session was over, Wangdi and Chhetri planned to work with both their colleagues in parliament and their newfound colleagues from the Forum: “When we go back we will brief our unit about the nature of the LGBT community, and what are the challenges, and we will share with them the legal barriers in our system. Of course, we will talk about how we can really change that,” explained Wangdi.

“Also, we have talked to our two colleagues from the community that it has to be from their side. The initiative has to be taken from their side so that we can support it. We told them that they can write to the parliament saying that there are certain provisions of law that restrict them, or criminalizes them, so request parliament can make the necessary amendments. Also, they can request to share their views with members of the parliament.”

For his part, Dorji was grateful to have had the two politicians take part in the session: “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.”

The process of changing the laws affecting LGBT people will be slow – the harmonization process is expected to continue beyond the next round of parliamentary elections, to be held in 2018. But Wangdi is positive that change will come and that Bhutan’s LGBT community will finally be more visible.

“Currently [homosexuality] is something criminal, but if you remove that then naturally the community will come up and slowly it will get into mainstream like any other countries.”


Passang Dorji on coming out on TV in Bhutan and progress made