Of discrimination, sex, hardships and life
It is estimated that there are about 9,000 LGBT people in Bhutan
History was made last week on June 26, when the United States became the 21st country in the world, and the most populous so far, to legalize same-sex marriage. The global press is still not done with the issue and reports of all aspects of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender (LGBT) is making headlines all over the world.
Back home, the issue of LGBT is slowly coming to the foreground, breaking age-old barriers but doing so with calculated caution in a society where orthodox culture and tradition rules supreme.
While the call for legalizing same-sex marriage in Bhutan appears to be almost a non-issue at present, people feel that there is a need to review legislation to respect the rights of the LGBT community in Bhutan.
Article 213 of the Penal Code of Bhutan states: “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 the nature.” Article 214 states that the offence of unnatural sex shall be a petty misdemeanor.
A report by the health ministry, “Formative Assessment on Stigma and Discrimination Impacting Universal Access to HIV and Health Services for Men who have Sex with Men and Transgender People in Bhutan,” states that the LGBT community in Bhutan is under the pressure of the law criminalizing same-sex behaviors in Bhutan.
However, the report also notes; “despite the existing law criminalizing same-sex sexual behaviors has never been used in Bhutan, Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSM) people revealed concerns and fears of being reported to local authorities and prosecuted if they disclose their sexual orientation”.
An independent journalist and a strong supporter of LGBT community, Namgay Zam, told
Business Bhutan that existing laws need to be revised.
“Sodomy law can exist, but it should be made clear that consensual sexual relations between two people of the same sex is not a crime,” she said.
Karma Dupchen, 23, who is gay and lives in Thimphu told Business
Bhutan that reviewing sodomy laws is an opportunity for the country to show solidarity and care for the LGBT community.
Namgay Zam said that although Bhutanese people, in general, are accommodating, they still needed to be educated more about the LGBT community. She highlighted that there are several issues of which the people are unaware. For instance, young people who realize that they are gay and seeking advice from elder and experienced peers are often victimized by the latter who are often looking for gay companions. “Being gay in Bhutan is sad for younger ones,” she said.
Among the LGBT community, Namgay Zam said that gay men are more open while lesbians are comparatively shy to mix around with the LGBT community. “Lesbians do not come out in closed group gathering,” she said. “This is quite worrisome.”
The health report points out that as the LGBT community faces some degree of social discrimination, there is more risk to contact sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDs.
Working as a Physiotherapist at Samtse General Hospital, Passang Dorji, 28, was one of the first men to declare his sexual orientation of being a gay in March this year. He said that he came in the open primarily to educate health workers about the LGBT community.
“Being a health worker myself, I know that health workers do not understand how to deal LGBT,” he said, stressing that the need to educate and sensitize health workers on LGBT should be a top priority.
A 25-year-old transgender in Thimphu is quoted in the report saying: “Initially, it was very difficult for my parents to accept and understand me. Very often, my father abused me physically due to my feminine behavior, and he condemned on many occasions. I was warned that if I continued to be myself, they would disown me.”
Passang Dorji said that a lot of LGBT people prefer not to seek medical attention for fear of being asked to reveal their sexual orientation.
Passang Dorji said that his family members and friends have accepted him. “I don’t know if people are talking behind my back or pointing fingers, but my family and the society as a whole have been very positive and supportive,” he said.
On the other hand, Karma Dupchen said LGBT people hesitate to seek medical help. He said that when transgender people fall sick, health workers are often confused whether to forward them in a female ward or male ward.
“Unlike MSM, transgender people cannot hide their orientation and it becomes uncomfortable for them when they fall sick,” said Karma Dupchen.
According to the study, MSM and transgender people showed lack of trust in the health system in Bhutan and are worried about their confidentiality when consulting medical experts.
The report also says that a “significant proportion of health care providers” are uncomfortable discussing sexuality with MSM and transgender people. Talking to Business
Bhutan, the executive director of Lhak-Sam, Wangda Dorji, agreed that there is a gap between the LGBT community and the healthcare providers. “Healthcare providers do not understand the needs of LGBT community and on the other hand, LGBT people do not know how to approach healthcare providers,” he said.
Lhak-Sam is a Civil Society Organization (CSO) and the first network of HIV positive people in Bhutan formed in September 2009.
It has also been noted that most LGBT people are loners by choice. Karma Dupchen said that the LGBT people choose to hide their true feelings from their family and friends making them lonely and depressed.
“Society is not a problem. The main hurdle is our families and friends,” said Passang Dorji, adding that the fear of what their family and friends might think keep them in the shadows.
The study reveals that some MSM people in Bhutan travel outside Bhutan “especially to Bangkok” to meet their sexual desires. It also says that MSM people are also on the lookout for tourists to satisfy themselves.
The report quotes a 32-year-old MSM living in Thimphu: “I have to confess that it is easier to find mates outside Bhutan. Here we are all so uptight and live in a small society; it makes it harder to have fun.”
Wangda Dorji also said that Lhak-Sam is in constant contact with 25 LGBT people.
Passang Dorji said that he personally knows about the existence of about 3,000 LGBT in Bhutan. While the definitive number of people in the LGBT community is not formally established, health ministry estimates say that there could be about 9,000 people in Bhutan.