REGIONAL July 3, 2019

Bhutan celebrates Pride month with decriminalising gay sex

Bhutan’s National Assembly has begun the process of decriminalising gay sex in early June. To explain the issues and process, we have 26 years old Tashi Tsheten who is currently heading Rainbow Bhutan, a network of individuals with diverse sexuality, gender identity and expression formed in 2015 as an advocate network for HIV and now includes broader and diverse needs of the LGBT+ movement in Bhutan. 

– Can you briefly explain why there was support from lower house of parliament to repeal the penal code provisions? 

The current government and the National Assembly are tasked with the Penal Code Amendment Bill 2019. The amendment was last done in 2011 where the section criminalizing consensual same-sex act was not deliberated or removed. As a young LGBT+ movement in the country and in the region, we saw that legal system changes always take time and we also saw that people in Bhutan never had proper sex education, so learning about SOGIESC was out of context. That is why we focused on building allies and proving accurate information and visibility for the LGBT+ community in Bhutan. That is the sole reason why the lower house has, with a majority, agreed to scrap the law. It was their understanding and their acceptance for the LGBT+ community which has made significant progress in the country.

– What has been the role of activists and Rainbow Bhutan in this advocacy? 

Rainbow Bhutan, as the first and only LGBT+ network in the country, provided visibility for the community. What we did as a network was crucial because we provided a face to the LGBT+ community in Bhutan. Despite facing prejudice, stigma and discrimination from society, we stood our ground strongly because we believed people needed knowledge to overcome their ignorance. We did a lot of advocacy in schools, institutions and to any who were willing to listen to us. We still continue our advocacy because it is crucial that we reach out as much as we can so that we can help each other understand and make this society a better place to live in. We also took the opportunity in the 3rd UPR cycle for Bhutan whereby with international support, we received a good number of SOGIE recommendations for our country. Everyone played a crucial part in the movement.

– Are the community hopeful that the bill will be passed? What is the timeline and mechanism now? 

The National Assembly has officially passed the Penal Code Amendment Bill 2019 on 10th June. The bill will now go the National Council (Upper House) within the next 30 days for further deliberation. If the National Council approves the Bill, it will go to His Majesty the King for Royal assent before it becomes law. We believe that the bill will be tabled in the coming winter session of the National Council which will start towards the end of the year. 

When the bill was tabled in the National Assembly, we saw tremendous support from our allies in the government, CSOs, UN agencies and independent allies who not only expressed support for us, but also did a lot of lobbying for the section to be removed. We believe, when the time comes, the National Council will see the wisdom in the decision of the National Assembly to remove the particular section. Everyone wants this law removed, and we will ensure that it happens, after all, the LGBT+ community is not alone, we have everyone supporting us to remove the section from the Penal Code of Bhutan. 

– How will the bill change or encourage acceptance of LGBTI people in Bhutan?

The mere removal of the section by the National Assembly has brought in a sense of belonging and joy within the LGBT+ community in Bhutan. It has encouraged the society to talk about the LGBT+ community and positive changes are already on the way for the community. Removal of the section will enable the LGBT+ community to openly advocate on the recognition of LGBT+ in the country. 

Acceptance is more dependent on the fact that the society has proper information and access to LGBT+ related content and the community itself. Most parts of our society have already accepted us for who we are, we just need to keep our advocacy strong so that the acceptance can reach the larger part of the society.