Homosexuality is not against the order of nature. 

This, the National Assembly recognised and decriminalised by repealing two sections in the Penal Code of Bhutan, without the LGBTIQ community even having to fight for their right. 

The move is welcomed by members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer (LGBTIQ) community. There are reasons.

When two people from the community were sexually abused, they couldn’t report the matter to concerned authorities. 

According to community members, it was because the perpetrators quoted section 213 and 214 of the Penal Code of Bhutan 2004, which criminalised unnatural sex. 

The victims shared their story to the community members but do not want to reveal the details to the media.

Section 213 states that a person is guilty of the offence of unnatural sex if the individual engages in sodomy or any other sexual conduct that is against the order of nature. Section 214 grades the offence as a petty misdemeanour.

The LGBTIQ members say removing the two clauses from the Penal Code would not only help them to come out open without any fear, but also help them avail sexual and mental health services.

Joint director for Rainbow Bhutan, a local organisation for the community, Tenzin Gyeltshen, said removing the two clauses is like opening the first gate.

“Unlike many countries where the LGBTIQ had to fight for their right, Bhutan’s NA members made history by decriminalising homosexuality without any effort from the group,” Tenzin said.

The group members take pride in not having fought for their right but worked with the government.

Tenzin Gyeltshen and his partner was the first couple to come out open. “The journey was not easy. I lost many close friends in the process and made many new friends too, but I don’t regret my decision.”

The LGBTIQ was also fortunate in way that their stand was already known to decisions makers. 

The group, Tenzin said, formed allies that helped in taking the issues of the group forward. “Finance minister Namgay Tshering who proposed the recommendation to the Assembly to remove the two clauses, was a programme officer with the health ministry and he knows our issues well,” he said.  

Health minister Dechen Wangmo and foreign affairs minister Dr Tandi Dorji were consultants and worked closely with the group.

There are 136 registered members of the LGBT group in Bhutan.

Members said an expat conducted a study to see how section 213 and 214 affected the group and 69 percent of the respondents felt the two clauses impacted them negatively.

Although no one has been criminalised for violating section 213, it created fear among the members.  “They would now have a peace of mind that there is no law criminalising what they do in their personal life as adults.”

Tenzin Gyeltshen said that when the group had a small gathering after the NA session that decriminalised homosexuality, a lot of people came out to support them. “This indicates a lot of people will now come out of the closet.”


Harassment and rights

LGBTIQ members suffer harassment quite often either at work place or others, although it is not as blatant. Members explained they are aware that removing the two clauses would not have much effect on the social stigma they face. “Only awareness and advocacy would help,” a member said. “There were incidences when our members were harassed by health officials when they went to seek medical services by questioning their gender and sexual orientation.”

The member said that LGBT members are 19 percent more vulnerable to HIV than straight people and most also suffer from mental health problems, as they go through a lot of trauma.

The first person to come out as gay, Passang Dorji, is however worried that although the sections were removed from the Penal Code, without any protection of the right of LGBT, it will be difficult to obtain marriage, adoption and owning property rights in future.

“Without any laws or sections about LGBTIQ, there would be identity problems in the future,” he said.

There are members like Tenzin Gyeltshen, who accepts that obtaining legal gender recognition and marriage certificates would take time. “But we are on track.”

Tenzin realised his sexual orientation in 2008 and came out open in 2015. “I suffered for almost seven years and it was really difficult.”

Members also said removing the two clauses would also help straight people, as sodomy is not only restricted to the community. 

However, the job is only half done. The Penal Code (amendment) 2019 will be deliberated in the upper house. It will depend on what the Council decides on the two sections and the fate of the more than 316 people registered as LGBTIQ.

Of the 316, three are lesbian, 21 transgender women, 31 transgender men, three bisexual women, 16 bisexual men and 62 gays.

There are 10 LGBTIQ members under 19 years, 93 between 20-30 years and 33 are above 30 years.

Tashi  Dema