Dechen Tshomo

Following the deliberation at the National Council on the provisions of the Penal Code on unnatural sex, an online petition to repeal sections 213 and 214 has begun since January 18.

In what could be the fastest signed petition in the history of online petitioning in Bhutan, the petition amassed the support of 2,156 individuals within 48 hours.

Namgay Zam, a freelance journalist who calls herself an ally of the cause and wrote the petition on behalf of the Bhutanese who identify as LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, queer), said that she was “pleasantly surprised” by so many people coming forward to sign up.

“I didn’t think that people would be so vocal and so action-oriented and want to sign,” she said.

She added that the petition would remain open for a few more days because of overwhelming response from the people. “We were going to keep it open till the end of the month or until they go to vote, whichever happens earlier.”

The petition will be submitted electronically to the chairperson of the National Council towards the end of this month.

“Some of the members also told me that they welcome it [petition] so I am quite heartened by the response that I had with the NC members today,” she said. “I also explained to the MPs of the House that we are not telling you how to do your job but this petition reflects how we as citizens feel about these issues now.”

The petition states that while Bhutan may not be a homophobic society, the two sections of the penal code clearly demonstrate a bias against gay sex. “To the outside world, we have criminalised homosexuality and thousands of Bhutanese for their SOGIE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression).” 

According to the petition, gay men are being made victims of blackmail and extortion because of the sections 213 and 214. Trans women are being raped and are not being able to report the violation because of the same sections.

“We understand the need for deliberation and legal process in parliament, but we would like our MPs to understand this from a standpoint that is not heteronormative,” it states.

About 90 percent of the LGBTIQ population is closeted due to fear of being judged and harassed, according to the petition. This group, it states, is sadly not even identified as vulnerable or at-risk despite being among the most vulnerable social groups.

Sharing an incident, she said that someone wrote to his NC member anonymously saying that if they decide to repeal Section 213 and 214 then he was going to write with his real ID to thank him. “So, there is different kind of movement going on showing that people want to come forward, they want to talk and they want to be open.”

After her interaction with the NC members yesterday, Namgay Zam said she was assured that they were not against the LGBTIQ community. “I don’t think they are homophobic, the majority of them, at least. I am sure there are some people who may not see how we see things and there are always people who are like that around the world. I am very much aware of that.”

She said that she was glad to know that there were so many Bhutanese who wanted LGBTIQ people in Bhutan to live with dignity. “There are so many of us who supports the community, it is very heartening to me personally.”

A supporter of the movement said sections 213 and 214 of the Penal code must to be repealed, as it is a vestigial component of the Penal Code.

He said that many arguing that the law has never been put in practice. This itself, he added, was an indication that the articles were just occupying space in the Penal Code without any function.

However, he said, that retaining them had negative implications as they could also be misused. “What needs to be very clear is that the LGBTIQ communities and their supporters are not asking for special privileges, just equal rights.”

As a father of three sons, he said that he might have some luck in influencing their choice of profession but he did not see how he could persuade them to change their sexual and emotional preferences.

“My point is that sexual preference is natural and cannot be described as unnatural just because it doesn’t conform to the norms that the society has determined is natural or right,” he said

Following the deliberation at the NC, many resorted to social media to share their concerns and grievances.

NC’s chairperson Tashi Dorji explained on January 18 on Facebook that there were several attempts to sensationalise the discussions pertaining to the clauses 213 and 214 of the Penal Code amendment. NC members were he said, slandered and labelled homophobic.

“As the chair presiding over the session, I have not noticed any member saying anything against the LGBTIQ community,” the post states.

He said the discussion focused more on the need to harmonise the two clauses with other legal provisions. “As a lawmaking house with the legislative mandate, it is important to understand that lawmaking is a process that involves discussion and debate and is not an event for publicity stunts.”

Requesting the activists to not sabotage the legal process by misinforming and sensationalising the issue, the post states that the chairperson spoke to the LGBTIQ community members who have raised genuine concerns and explained the issue and legal processes to them. “LGBTIQ community members expressed appreciation and understanding of the NC.”

One of the founding members of Rainbow Bhutan, Tashi Tsheten, said that the community was hopeful that the NC would see through the wisdom of what the National Assembly had so far done. “We understand that it’s a legal process and it will take time. For now, we need to be patient and hope for the best.”

On the petition, he said that it, including the comments, were not irrational and showed concerns and fears for the community.

He said that it was not only the LGBTIQ community who was talking about the repeal. “Everyone is coming forward and talking about the repeal. Just a comment or post made on the recommendation by the legislative committee have gathered so much support for the community and we are glad this has happened so far.”

However, he said it was too early to say anything concretely about the issue. “But we are waiting for the decision on February 7 when they go to vote on the Penal Code Amendment Bill 2019.”

As of 9pm yesterday, 2,251 people had signed the petition.

“A lot of signing is happening because other people are sharing it asking their friends and relatives. The credit goes to everybody who is involved,” Namgay Zam said.