Despite policies to destigmatise against people living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in the country, removing the stigma attached to the infection remains a challenge.

The executive director of Lhak-Sam, Wangda Dorji, claims that he was denied membership at a gymnasium in Thimphu recently because of his HIV status.

Lhak-Sam is the first network of HIV positive people in Bhutan.

Wangda Dorji, 42, said it has been more than five years since he went public with his HIV status.

“Mentally I am strong but lately I started feeling weak physically and thought of joining a gym to build my immunity. I visited a gym in Thimphu,” Wangda Dorji said.

The gym owner showed Wangda and his wife around. “The gym owner said it’s a good idea to join the gym and said my wife should also join because it will help her stay fit.”

He returned to the gym after three months to confirm his membership. “As I waited at the reception I felt uneasy because I noticed that the owner was hesitant to talk to me.”

According to Wangda Dorji, the owner told him that he couldn’t sign up for a membership at the gym because other clients were hesitant to share the same equipment, bathrooms and sauna with him.

“The gym owner said he can train me in the open air-gym in Lungtenzampa area with my friends. But being a member at the gym would affect his business,” he said. “I can feel that the owner and his wife felt sorry for me. I did feel bad but I told the owner that I was not offended.”

Wangda Dorji felt that it was fair for the gym owner to refuse his membership. “He has to support his family, sustain the business and losing even one client would make a difference to his business.”

Lhak-Sam members said they faced such discrimination and stigmatisation not only from the gym owner. They recalled an incident last year when Lhak-Sam members including the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community members had lunch with the Prime Pinister, health minister and the education minister at Druk Hotel in Thimphu after they observed the World AIDS day on December 1.

In a telephone interview, a 24-year-old woman from Gelephu claimed that the Prime Minister asked her if she was HIV positive. She said yes. She said no when he asked her if she attended school. “He then said that despite being uneducated I got a job and an opportunity to eat at Druk Hotel because of my HIV status,” she claimed.

She is from an underprivileged family and works with Lhak-Sam. “I wasn’t this hurt even when I came to know that I was HIV positive,” she choked. ‘I did not publicly reveal my HIV status because I was afraid of discrimination and stigmatisation.”

She claims that some Lhak-Sam members are not aware of her HIV status and there were other people at the hotel that time. “It was embarrassing to have the hotel staff look at me.”

A 44-year-old HIV positive member from Phuentsholing said in a telephone interview that he felt discriminated when the Prime Minister commented that they might not have had a chance to eat at Hotel Druk had it not been for their HIV status.  “I was shocked and out of words,” he said. “ I felt very low.”

Another HIV positive, Pema Dorji, 48, said he was happy when they were given an opportunity to have lunch with the Prime Minister. He alleged that they were asked if a member of the film industry who passed away recently was a member of Lhak-Sam. “It may not be the Prime Minister’s intention but I was hurt by the way he talked to us.”

Pema Dorji said people living with HIV and other key affected people are shunned by their own family and peers. “My wife left me and my brother is embarrassed to call me his sibling,” he said. “It’s been more than three years since my brother stopped talking to me.”

He said that because of such stigma, people living with HIV are insulted, rejected, gossiped about and excluded from social activities. “The fear of this happening can limit people access to HIV testing and treatment.”

Another HIV positive, Tshering Choden, 29, said while stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV remain, it is not expected of the Prime Minister to openly talk about the HIV status of people. According to a health official, policy mandates that the information on HIV status of individuals be kept confidential.

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said he did not intend to discriminate them. “The Lhak-Sam’s executive director, Wangda Dorji was cutting me off and he was agitated so I told him not to do that. I think that hurt him. This is so sad,” Lyonchhen said.

“The health and education ministers were also present then and they know what happened,” the Prime Minister said.

Education Minister Norbu Wangchuk said the way Wangda Dorji talked to the Prime Minister was not right. “The prime minister shakes hands with all of them and eats lunch with them so how can that be discrimination?,” he said. “Wangda Dorji frequently cut off when the prime minister was speaking and he was aggressive.”

Lyonchhen said that they tend to talk aggressively sometimes. “I too do that and it happens to everyone. He was talking about all the problems they face and I told him nicely to look at the successes also. As a community and Bhutan as a small developing country, how open we are to HIV and LGBT. When I was explaining, he cuts me off so I even scolded him for that and because of that he is saying we don’t have support for Lhak-Sam and LGBT,” he said.

Health minister Tandin Wangchuk also claimed that Wangda Dorji was aggressive when they met for lunch.

Wangda Dorji agreed that he did not stop speaking when the prime minister asked him to. “This might have offended the prime minister but if I did not speak completely then I would not be able to convey what I wanted to.”

Dechen Tshomo