Phurpa Lhamo | Wangdue

In March this year, 23-year-old Tshering Lhamo Rinchen was travelling to Paro. With her were three other trans-women attending a meeting on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT+) community.

With the pandemic, the four women had registered themselves in the checkpost management system (CPMS) before their travel. At the checkpost, police stopped them for verification.

A lengthy explanation ensued.

For trans-women in Bhutan, from travelling to visiting a toilet, is a challenge.

“I remember one of my friend driving the car and her licence is of a male. ‘Is the driver licence your husband’s?’ This kind of questions are asked,” Tshering Lhamo Rinchen said.

At one time, Tshering Lhamo Rinchen had planned to visit Bangkok for a surgery. However, she was worried that she wouldn’t be allowed to re-enter if she transited without changing her identity card.

“I would be allowed to exit as male but if I enter as female they would stop me, chances are high. You have to be on hormones for almost two years and you have to prepare for the surgery. And when you are on hormones, your body becomes really different,” Tshering Lhamo  Rinchen said.

Trans-women are assigned male at birth. With feminine expression and identity of a woman, living with male identity cards means much hindrance to everyday activities.

Similar concerns inflict trans-men.

In 2015, Ogo Dorji, a trans-man was studying in class XII in one of the high schools in Thimphu.

Ogo had always leaned towards masculine expression although he was assigned female at birth.

He preferred keeping short hair, liked to wear a gho and playing archery.

In one of the high schools in Thimphu, cutting his hair short became a problem for the school administration.

Few weeks prior to his board exams, the school presented Ogo Dorji and a few of his friends three options.

He could change school; shave his head; or do pacham at the farewell in front of his other friends.

“The exam was near and how could we change school as our family didn’t know about it. So, we decided to do pacham during the farewell. And they made us practise. It was stressful during that time because it would have been embarrassing,” Ogo Dorji said. “And when others were enjoying, our small group was in a classroom. We did practise in front of others but we didn’t have to do it in the end.”

Remarks on the watches they wear, the shoes they wear, and the length of their hair are common in schools for the trans-community.

“There was an incident where family had pressured a trans-man to marry a man. In 2016, he jumped from building and killed himself,” Ogo Dorji said.

Ogo has been living with his partner for about four years.

He said that like any other couple, marriage and children were dreams shared by many trans individuals who are in a relationship.

“We aren’t married but we are living together. Because of the identity card we cannot marry,” Ogo Dorji said.

Without any legal recognition of same-sex marriages in Bhutan, changing Ogo Dorji’s identity to his preferred identity is a solution to his dreams.

Recent survey done by Pride Bhutan stated that Bhutan has 124 trans-men and 26 trans-women.

A gender recognition policy is a gateway to solving a majority of the issues faced by the LGBT community in Bhutan, said Pride Bhutan’s (previously called Rainbow Bhutan) director, Tenzin Gyeltshen.

“Basically gender recognition policy recognises transgender in a legal way. Currently, looking at the government agencies and policies, there is acceptance but there is nothing in black and white,” Tenzin Gyeltshen said.

For the LGBT community, decriminalisation of ‘unnatural sex’, which was graded a crime according to section 213 and 214 of the Penal Code of Bhutan, was a major step towards addressing issues related to the LGBT community.

Tenzin Gyeltshen said that a gender recognition policy if implemented would address challenges of dress code, hair, travelling and availing hormone pills for the transgender community.

“If there is recognition policy, there is a mandate that they would recognise the LGBT, and automatically others would come along like the marriage and adoption,” Tenzin Gyeltshen said.

According to Tenzin Gyeltshen gender recognition policy would address identity cards problems among the transgender community; it would address marriage and divorce problems among the LGBT community; and it would enable trans boys and girls to have their preferred expression among others.

“Just like how law is derived through the constitution, if there is a recognition policy, sub topics through it will emerge,” Tenzin Gyeltshen said.

In 2015, when Tshering Lhamo was locked inside a men’s toilet by her bullies in the school, she went to the school authority to complain about the issue. “They poured water on me and that was when I knew I wanted to give up.”

Despite her complaints, no actions were taken.

Tshering Lhamo said that she never visited toilet during intervals or lunchtime, as students would try to peek, which made using toilet awkward. “Because I was open about it from eight grade, most people knew and more bullying happened.”

If a gender recognition policy is introduced, Tshering Lhamo Rinchen hoped it would address these issues.

Today, Tshering Lhamo Rinchen interacts with young transgender girls and boys to help them deal with such issues.

She also encourages them to continue their education despite the hardships. “With the policy I hope that it would address discrimination.”

With constant bullying and having to live with the traditional gender norms (wearing kira, growing hair) in schools, records with Pride Bhutan show that transgender individuals drop out of school early.

Data showed that 93 of 106 trans-men had higher level and less than higher-level schooling. Only 10 had university education.

Among trans-women, only one had university education. A majority of trans-women are in the entertainment business.

“Most trans community, we have issues with identity cards and in the end most go to the entertainment centres where they get into drugs and alcohol,” Tshering Lhamo Rinchen said.

In trans-men, Ogo Dorji said that because individuals had to stick to the traditional gender norms, most trans-men avoided jobs, which required them to wear kira at work. Thus, many choose jobs where they have to wear uniforms such as the police, or technical jobs.

“If you aren’t comfortable in what you are wearing or with the way you look, you cannot study because your mind is diverted. Even for straight people, if a person is forced to do something they don’t like, they don’t succeed in what they are doing,” Tshering Lhamo Rinchen said.

While the community continues to face stigma and discrimination, Tshering Lhamo Rinchen said that compared to the past, people now are more accepting.

Edited by Jigme Wangchuk