Coming out of the closet

LGBT community faces uphill struggle to overcome both self and social stigma

MSM: He was confused.  He had started liking boys. He was only thirteen.

The teenager didn’t know what was happening to him.  He didn’t tell anyone and had no answers himself.

He was still confused when he reached high school. “For the first time, I had a crush on a boy,” he said. “I was confused, because I was born a male, with male anatomy and I should be liking girls. But it didn’t happen.”

Today, he is no more confused.  He knows what he is and what he wants.

To start creating awareness on health issues among those like him, Passang Dorji, on March 11 went public with his identity as a MSM (men who have sex with men), making him the first Bhutanese to give the term and their hidden community a face.

The 27-year-old is a physiotherapy technician at Samtse general hospital, and insists that he and those like him shouldn’t be referred to as gay, just because of their sexual orientation. “I’m a human being with a different sexual orientation, but I am normal,” he said. “I didn’t choose to be MSM. I was born like this.”

He said that it was impossible for anyone or anything to change him, because he had tried. “I tried meditation to change my mind. It didn’t. I consulted physicians but that too didn’t help.”

What physicians helped him understand, however, was to accept his sexual orientation as a MSM.  “The first thing that we need to accept is the self stigma within us, which is wrong.”

Passang said MSMs can be masculine and feminine based on which the society judged them. “They call us chhakas or use local words, when we are walking on the street,” he said.

His time at the school of health sciences in Thimphu helped him understand the issue better and, by the time he graduated, he realised that he had been living with a fake identity.

But as an only child, it was not easy to tell his parents. “It’s very difficult to convince my  parents, who live with this notion that their children will marry and bear children and continue the family lineage,” he said.

However, after he started networking with the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community for a project that Lhak-sam was working on, and explained to his family that he was helping people like him, who are in the closet, his parents supported him.  “They said I could go ahead and that was a big push for me to move forward.”

Passang may have taken a big step but the challenge has only begun.  He has to first help his LGBT community remove the self-stigma they live with today. “Many said it was too early for me to come out,” he said. “

The youngest in their network is 17 years, while the oldest are in their 50s.  Most of them, who are above 30, are married with families.

But since they are still hidden, Passang said there are health issues they cannot talk about.

ISSUES

An assessment on stigma and discrimination impacting universal access to HIV and health services for MSM and transgender (TG) people in Bhutan by the health ministry in May 2013 found that a majority of the MSM people were uncomfortable identifying themselves as MSM or “gay”.

A 29-year-old MSM in Thimphu, said, “I identify myself as gay within the four walls of my room, but to the outside world I’m a “man”.  What I say is hard for Bhutanese to understand and I’m not going to be the first one to explain.”

The study stated that the barriers for not disclosing their sexual orientation are socially and culturally rooted in the Bhutanese society. “They also perceived that the legal environment emphasises these barriers, as same-sex relationship is still condemned in Bhutan,” the study said.

During the study, a 27-year-old MSM in Phuentsholing said, “Every parent has an expectation that one day their son will marry a good girl and start a family. I don’t think any parent would wish to see a son bringing home a man and defy the law of nature.”

Although most MSMs declared their orientation as “homosexual,” many confessed that they still had sexual relationship with female partners.  They explained this as a social blanket or a strategy they used to cope with the stigma.

“We become visible as “gay” if we don’t have a girlfriend; to prevent many unnecessary explanations, we have a girlfriend to show off to “society,” said a 22-year-old MSM in Phuentsholing had said.

TGs raised the issues of national identity card that includes the biological sex, and the policy requirement to wear the national dress accordingly.

“I never go to dzongs or apply for jobs in the government or corporations because we have to show our CID card, where I’m listed as a male with a male name. I’m sure I’ll never be selected due to the mismatch,” a 21-year-old TG in Thimphu had said.

Unlike the TGs, most MSMs were, however, aware of the legal barriers they could face.

Section 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 nature.”  The grading of the crime shall be a petty misdemeanour.

Most TGs could not believe the existence of this law, while MSMs expressed fears of prosecution and identified this law as one of the major deterrent factors for disclosing their sexuality.

“When it’s there in black and white, it’s hard to ignore and turn a blind eye towards it,” a 31-year old MSM in Thimphu said during the study. “I don’t believe that there will be a proactive head hunt for MSM, but if some underlying issues arise, then it may be used very conveniently.”

A few also expressed fear that healthcare providers might report to the police.

In terms of access to information on HIV and STI prevention, the MSM group sourced it from the Internet, newspapers and magazines, and TGs accessed TV/radio and HISC.

“It’s important to note that, in general, the respondents reported a low rate of condom and water-based lubricant use during anal sex, mainly due to lack of knowledge and strong assumptions that transmission of HIV and STI is low during anal sex,” the study states.

Participants reported lack of water-based lubricant in the market and health facilities, and indicated the use of saliva, petroleum jelly, and mustard oil as personal lubricant.

“Most participants reported rectal issues, such as tears and warts, as major health concerns that require medical attention.”

While the number may not be high, a few anecdotes collected during the assessment showed that there are male sex workers operating in Bhutan.   The study found a significant level of homophobia, misconception about homosexuality, and layered stigma amongst health care providers.

From the fear of being prosecuted to distrust in the health system in maintaining confidentiality to creating awareness and removing the stigma, Passang’s work will not be easy to mainstream the LGBT community.

“The most important is advocacy and for people to understand, which is slowly growing,” he said.

By Sonam Pelden

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