Jul 11, 2010

Gay and Lesbian Pride in Bhutan

Last month, June, was Gay Pride Month. I really wanted to attend at least one of the festivals to show my support and interest (esp one of the programs "Out in the Himalayas" that was on at the Rubin Museum of [Himalayan] Art) but I didn't manage to get to any. Anyhow, I hope to talk to Dr. Jeffrey Hopkins someday. He is a gay Buddhist scholar and author and currently Professor Emeritus of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Virginia. He gave a talk about being gay in a Buddhist community and I was very curious/interested in what he might have to say.

I also missed the Gay Pride March, which took place the day I was arriving from Berlin so I'm sorry, no colourful pictures to accompany this piece except for the flag.

In Bhutan I know that while we are a very traditional society we are also very accommodating and open to many things. We are very liberal when it comes to women, sex and divorce and given that our ancient traditions and customs (unlike many traditional ones) do not discriminate or ostracize people based on faith, race, gender, beliefs etc. we have been extremely progressive on many fronts compared with not only our neighbours but even the rest of the world.

It is indeed something that we take great pride in.

While Gay, Lesbian and Transgender issues were never on the forefront or even discussed, there is no denying that like every society(maybe some societies more than others)Bhutan also has them. In Bhutanese society, like everything, we make no big issue out of it. If you are one, you simply are. There are no hate crimes, no discrimination, no ostracizing just because you are one.

Just as women have the right to do what they want and choose to live as they please, so also do people like gays and lesbians have the freedom to do as they wish.

Like any society though, Bhutanese society is no different in that they gossip and talk about people. This can be particularly damaging in a fish-bowl society (Bhutan's population .5 million) where not only gay and lesbian's are targets but every person (irrespective of your class, race, gender, irrespective of what you do) can become the subject of gossip and rumours. That is about the only reason I can think of, why Gay, Lesbians and Transgender people may be hesitant to come out.

But lately Bhutanese journalists are exploring the emergence of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender's who seem to be embracing their sexuality without inhibitions. "The door to the closet in Bhutan is slowly swinging open....." starts an article in Bhutan Observer about a young cross-dressing woman who is anything but hesitant to talk about her experiences of being in many relationships with other women. Apparently she was even married a couple of times to women who were aware of her sexuality. (Getting "married" here means civil union)

Another article by BO reports that Lesbians may be more in number than gay men, only because women are more likely to feel freer or more comfortable to come out than Bhutanese men (says a lot about Bhutanese women!)

So keeping in mind that society is extremely tolerant of these issues it comes as a surprise that the government would have a penal code that spells the very opposite of what Bhutanese society is or does.

In the case of women and abortion the Penal Code of Bhutan - which never took a moral stand on issues on abortion before -suddenly came out and deemed that it would be a punishable crime if a woman was found having an abortion (unless for reasons listed in the Penal Code). I sometimes wonder why we have such a legislation in the first place when it is Totally (deliberately?) not even enforced. I mean what are we trying to prove and who are we kidding? Do we think that by making such a law our moral image is uplifted?

As a woman I think it is to the contrary. It would be better if the legislation was dictated by what society is willing to condone or has no aversions to (at least in this case). So also with homosexuality.

I went through the Penal Code curious to see what it said about homosexuals. I even asked a member of Parliament what our official standing was on this issue. The Penal Code says nothing about it except under "UNNATURAL SEX" article 213: A defendant shall be guilty of unnatural sex, if the defendant engages in sodomy or any other sexual conduct that is against the order of nature. (?!)

What is sexual conduct that is against the order of nature? Against the order of nature might mean BESTIALITY which according to article 209 states that a defendant shall be guilty of Bestiality if it concerns sexual acts with an animal. But since that is already spelled out in 209 then what is 213 trying to say? Does homosexual conduct go against the order of nature in Bhutan? It says sodomy is unnatural so that means being a homosexual is unnatural?

I guess it says nothing, because when I asked a member of Parliament about the ambiguity of this law, I was told : "the prevailing laws are silent on the issue. It more or less sounds like homosexuality is not illegal. However, marrying in the court may not be allowed. Of course, this is just my own interpretation."

So in my opinion herein lies the danger of having such an article that can be left open to interpretation where even a member of Parliament doesn't know what to make of it. A person/lawmaker who is against homosexuality can interpret it in anyway he/she might want to and because of this it could not only lead to crimes against homosexuals and transgenders but it would also ensure that a person (Gay, Lesbian or Transgender) can't ask for protection should a crime be committed against him/her.

It might in the future also deter people of that sexual orientation from coming out.

This kind of law (like the one on abortion) does not reflect how Bhutanese society feels or is. Bhutanese society as I know it is very accepting, tolerant and the least bothered about penalizing a person for what he or she does in his/her personal life and they have never demanded any official standing or even penalization. So as Gay pride month came and went, it left me wondering why our government would want to tarnish its own image when it has one of the most progressive and accepting societies to begin with.

Footnote: (asian magazine) reran this article on their site. Check it out.


sonam ongmo said...

I posted this on my FB page and I had quite a few comments there. Just thought I would share them here.

Dragon Tales: Gay and Lesbian Pride in Bhutan
21 hours ago · Comment · Like · Share
Vilhelm Konnander, Issa Villarreal and 2 others like this.

Sonam Ongmo
thnx for the like guys, appreciate it~
17 hours ago · Like ·

Issa Villarreal
really nice post. i guess there are several layers of struggle when it comes to gay acceptance. first, there's the social acceptance. then, law correspondance. to everything that is fast-paced (like the internet) laws always fall behind.

on the other hand, it is good to read buthanese women are so independent. i have envy, good-hearted envy. :)
15 hours ago · Like ·

Sonam Ongmo
Thanks Issa, having a matriarchal society is good. I always count my blessings :)
15 hours ago · Like ·

Vilhelm Konnander
I can only agree with Issa: A really good story, both in style and content. It makes me wonder how a matriarchy works, and what - apparently - makes it more open to these issues than the prevalent patriarchy.
10 hours ago · Like ·

Sonam Ongmo
Thanks Vilhelm. A matriarchal society is one in which the woman takes the leading role in the family/society in general like for instance in Bhutan, the inheritance laws are all in favour of women - that means that daughters usually inherit property as they take care of the families. And when a woman marries she doesn't leave her home, the husband ...
See more
10 hours ago · Like ·

Simba Deogratias
‎@Sonam. That is interesting, I know of a few ethnic groups in Tanzania that have more or less similar practices ... even children are considered to belong to the wife's family. Well, may be the world is not totally 'male-dominated'!
5 hours ago · Like ·

Jillian C. York
This is really interesting Sonam, thank you!
2 hours ago · Like ·

Sonam Ongmo
Thnkx Jillian and thnx also for posting it. Appreciate it :)
2 hours ago · Like ·

Sonam Ongmo
‎@ Simba that is so good to know! I hope I can visit you someday in Africa!! :)
2 hours ago · Like ·

Nicolás Tereschuk
How about this?
about an hour ago · Like ·

Sonam Ongmo
Bravo!! Way to go Argentina. Just shows you guys are more liberal than many countries who like to think they are but are not.
27 minutes ago · Like · 1 person

Nicolás Tereschuk
Sure ! Great news from Argentina. All of America can learn from this.
24 minutes ago · Like · 1 person

kinga said...

Dear Sonam (Gypsy??),

The recent issue of contention reported in the Bhutanese media is the "sentencing of two boys to 5yrs and 3yrs in prison" respectively for the alleged rape of a girl of about 17-18 yrs.

While the verdict passed was of rape (3rd degree felony), medical examination and circumstantial evidences point towards consensual sex.

What's your take on this??..shouldn't "rape' be defined? what about the age limit to be called a minor?? ,etc.

sonam ongmo said...

Hi Kinga
I appreciate you bringing this to my attention. It is indeed very interesting why such a harsh penalty for consensual sex; so close in age; in a relationship with one of the boys; and medically proven there was no rape.

I had an interesting discussion on my FB page because I was curious to see what others had to say about a similar case in their countries.

I tried to post that discussion here but it is too long. Are you on my FB? If not let me know and I will post it as a blog entry.

It seems like Canada does look into the "nature of the case" to decide penalty, so something like this would - because of the reasons stated - carry a lighter penalty.

I have written about this before so if you are interested in this issue please check out my blog under social justice topic and read.

I would like to write about it but I couldn't find a Kuensel story and the BBS one seems very sketchy. Anyhow please keep me posted if you hear anything more or send me links to info/write-ups on it.


sonam ongmo said...

Also what is interesting is, of all the comments in response to my posting this on FB - none of the respondents were Bhutanese, except for one like ~ little disappointing....

kinga said...

Hi sonam,


Will read that post on your FB.

Bernice said...

Hi there,

I am an editor at, or asia!, which is an online and mobile platform for Asian bloggers and other writers.

Our aim is for asia! to be a place where people can get a feel for what ordinary Asians are thinking, saying and doing; a glimpse of the Asia that lies beyond the news headlines.

We came across your post on Gay and Lesbian Pride in Bhutan, which we would like very much to be able to use it on asia! and hope we can have your permission to do so. It will appear with your byline and at the end of the article we will provide a link to your blog.

I look forward to hearing from you, and I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.

Best wishes,

sonam ongmo said...

You are most welcome to use it. Look forward to seeing it on asiamag

Debby Ng said...

Hi Sonam, chanced upon your very informative Blog and found the following story of great interest to our online publication:

I'd like to request for permission to reproduce the story on our website:

Couldn't find your email so decided to leave a comment. Email me at debby[at]theasiamag[dot]com

Bryce Thomason said...

Also the spoke of Hollywood, where Hollywood writers seemed to put a gay person on every single sit-com and at least one scene or character in every single movie - stating that wasn't right because there just are not that many gay citizens in our country by proportion. Then they spoke of the ""gay agenda" in our politics in Washington DC, in our entertainment manufacturing, at our college campuses, and claiming that the GLBT crowd was preying on adolescents who are going through their own hormonal awakenings, thus, in a way brainwashing them as they are confused about the changes in their own bodies.

Bryce Thomason said...

What is irrefutable is that there absolutely seems to be a ""gay agenda." If you accept my premise, you might want to know what that agenda is? It would appear to be general acceptance and the patina of normalcy. For years the American Psychological Association had classified homosexuality as an illness.