Gay in the Land of Happiness, Bhutan
By Passang Dorji
In Bhutan the Penal Code’s Sections 213 and 214 state that homosexuality is against nature and punishable. This reinforces the popular view that homosexuality is wrong, although no one appears to be penalized and punished under these antiquated laws.
The Bhutanese LGBT movement effectively started on 19 December 2008 when a popular newspaper, the Bhutan Observer, featured a story entitled “How gay are Bhutanese gays?”, and in the same year a prominent transgender figure, Dechen Seldon came out. After this, the Ministry of Health tried to reach out to the community under the National HIV/AIDS control programme (NACP). However, Bhutan still lacks adequate data on the needs and experiences of such key populations.
Often, the focus has been on HIV prevention, which can have the unintended negative outcome of intimately linking people who identify as LGBT with HIV, potentially increasing stigma, fear and discrimination. Unfortunately, the few studies that have been undertaken to date have also found it difficult to recruit MSM (men who have sex with other men), transgender and people who use drugs. However, Lhaksam – the network of PLHIV (people living with HIV) in Bhutan, has established an informal network and are working towards the common goals of being together and finding happiness. In December 2014 Lhaksam launched the first LGBT information brochure in the country.
I was brought up in a typical semi-Tibetan village where I was taught Buddhist values. Religion was the sole and dominating moral guidance for our lives. Nothing was spoken openly about homosexuality, but people whispered about ‘phole mole’, ‘phulu mulu’ – the local term for intersex people. Growing into my teenage years at the local school I became very confused about my sexual orientation. While other boys started talking about girlfriends, I was afraid to discuss my sexual confusion until I was in college. I opened up and talked about my sexuality when I was studying at the Faculty of Nursing and Public Health, University of Medical Sciences, in Thimphu.
Growing up as a gay boy in Bhutan was difficult and challenging. There were no gay friends to hang out with, and share my feelings. I was severely depressed, and at times thought of killing myself. As I grew up, I met ‘friends’ only at night, but they were just sexual partners. Most of them identified as heterosexual, and I was afraid that they would hurt me if I told anyone they that had had sex with me. Sometimes, I was sexually harassed, but at that time it was not something that I could speak to anyone about. I remember the days when I had sex in hotels, school hostels, outdoors in cars and other places that my partners and gay friends thought were safe. It was the way I lived my sexuality, and I did not know about sexually transmissible infections (STIs) and had no knowledge about how to use condoms, lubes and sex toys.
Although we do not have data to prove it, it is reasonable to assume that gay men in Bhutan are more vulnerable to STIs and HIV that some other sections of the population. Many times my gay friends call me on the phone saying they have STIs and where can they go to seek help without feeling stigmatized and discriminated against. While I say ‘gay friends’, most of them identify as bisexual, where there can be cross infection to and from heterosexual partners.
It was in 2011 when I was about to graduate from the Faculty of Nursing and Public Health in Thimphu, that I sought help from a psychiatrist, received counseling about my beliefs and behaviors, and started my new life with dignity. It was at the end of 2011 that, for the first time, I met somebody reliable as a brother to me. Tandin was my first ‘bro’, and this turned around the way I perceived my own life. He taught me how to accept myself, and the love he showed to me was unforgettable. The memories of the first time I met him at Memorial Chorten echoes again and again in my mind, and reminds me to live a higher and better life.
After I graduated and became financially independent, I decided to discover the reactions of my friends – to my ‘coming out’. I asked a friend of mine ‘what would you do if your friend happened to be gay?’ She said ‘I would embrace him with my arms open’. This was great and unexpected response, and she hugged me when I confessed to her that I was gay. Later in that year I started telling some of the more ‘friendly’ health professionals I knew, however I limited it to only those I assumed to be non-homophobic.
In 2013 I was transferred to a southern district of Bhutan – Samtse – and had fewer friends and limited capacity to meet my ‘gay-friendly’ Thimphu friends. However, I made some new friends in West Bengal and Sikkim during my holidays.
The year 2015 came as a blessing year to me. With the support of Lhaksam, I was sent for a study tour to Nepal. In Nepal I made a number LGBT friends who were working for the Blue Diamond Society, and they were very friendly, encouraging and lively. I was also interviewed by the Ujalo Network, the FM radio programme run by the Blue Diamond Society.
On coming back to my homeland, I decided to break the long silence and let people know gays do exist in Bhutan. I came out to my mother. It is sad that she continues to hold the views of most mothers that I need to continue the family lineage. It was 11th March 2015, still with fear, worried and sweating, that I went to the Ministry of Health, NACP to announce I was ‘coming out’ on national television. I felt supported, and it was at 7 pm that I did ‘come out’ in an interview for the popular show of the Bhutan Broadcasting Service. The next day I was interviewed by Kuensel, and people started talking about gays in Bhutan – it was really a silence broken!
It was not an easy task. I always dreamt of coming out but felt that I was unprepared and would face post-disclosure discrimination. It took me almost a year to think and plan. Coming out may happen for some soon after they accept their sexual orientation, or it may take many, many years for some, and may not happen at all for others. It is a personal choice, and not compulsory. If they are happy in the closet and that is how they live – fine, but I was never happy in the closet. The feeling to tell others was bursting in me every night. After coming out I received calls from many Bhutanese and foreign friends. Facebook pages quoted me and wrote about me. The most touching bit was when one of my closet friends wrote to me saying ‘I envy you, you did it and wish I could do it, heads up to you’.
From the general public I seem to be accepted and tolerated, but still people whisper behind me. They will look at each other after I pass by and talk about me. Some of my friends are afraid of walking with me or going to restaurants and bars with me. It is true most Bhutanese think being homosexual is ‘unnatural’, even thought the acceptance level may be higher compared to other countries since Bhutanese are generally compassionate people. People might accept you and tolerate you, if you are not their sons and daughters.
Despite our successes so far in Bhutan, most LGBT poeple are still hidden and suffering in silence and alone: ‘’I am a gay within the four corners of my room, but to the outside world I am a ‘man’”. What can I say? Our transgender sisters have many stories to tell about how they are treated. For example at a recent symposia conducted by the Health Ministry in Thimphu they spoke of health workers who did not respect their privacy. Some teachers and school authorities told the younger gay men that that it was their own fault that they acted ‘girly’ because of which they were being bullied and pushed into the girls’ toilets of their schools.
Bhutan is a Buddhist country where diverse sexualities are not spoken about much and sexual activity seems to be ‘sin’. However, here I would like to quote His Holiness Dzongsar Khentse Rinpoche on his insights regarding LGBT people. The Rinpoche has said: “your sexual orientation has nothing to do with understanding the truth or not understanding the truth, you could be gay, lesbian, or straight, but we never know which one will get enlightened first.’’ Buddhism is about cause and effect. Thus, if we sow good seeds we should get better result and continue to accumulate good karma. Buddhism teaches us to be kind, compassionate, thoughtful and mindful so that we don’t create bad karma.
LGBT people are generally not spoken about, and our voices unheard by our own families. I would like to see more LGBT Bhutanese people speaking out, so that others can hear our stories, our fears, our worries, and also our joys and dreams of happy futures with everyone else living in an exciting, inclusive land of Gross National Happiness!