On June 7, Bhutan’s lower house overwhelmingly voted to repeal Sections 213 and 214 of the Bhutan Penal Code, taking a historic step towards decriminalising homosexuality in the Himalayan country. And while the Finance Minister of Bhutan, Namgay Tshering, called the existing sections “a stain” on the country’s reputation, the legislative committee of the Bhutanese National Assembly went on to move the motion to pass the amendment to its penal code, on June 10.
Tashi Tsheten—a 26-year-old gay Bhutanese from Thimphu and the director of local LGBTQ organisation Rainbow Bhutan—tells VICE about growing up queer in a patriarchal society, and what this piece of news means to him:
Growing up queer in Bhutan was a little lonely
I wouldn't say growing up queer was difficult in Bhutan but there has never been much visibility of the LGBTQ community in the country. In fact, Bhutan got access to television just 20 years back! Plus, our society is very patriarchal, which means that there are norms for genders—girlfriend-boyfriend, husband-wife. This even made me question myself, and it was unnerving that I couldn’t change the way I am.
I didn't have many friends while growing up too. I had a few but I couldn't talk about my sexuality because then, again, I didn't have the proper information about it. In school, I had transgender friends who identified as women but couldn’t talk about it because, again, there was a system where boys had to wear specific attire. Not coming across any gay, bisexual or queer persons made me feel very lonely.
Bullying was common because boys are expected to be a certain way
I realised I was gay back in 2015 when I turned 22. Before that, I wasn't bullied for being gay, but more for being [effeminate]. People tried to change my behaviour and even my friend circle because I hung out with mostly girls. They questioned why I didn't play sports and started talking about the way I walked.
So my first response to bullying was to develop a defence mechanism: I ignored people. It worked really well for me, but it’s not the same for everyone. For example, my partner has developed anxiety, depression and panic attacks because of being bullied in school. In fact, I’m lucky because I could ignore people and their comments, and move on.
I tried to date with a fake Facebook profile, and discovered the LGBTQ community in my city
I made a fake profile on Facebook just to meet and socialise with people back in 2015. During one of those conversations, someone invited me to one of the HIV forums that the LGBTQ community was organising in Thimphu. That’s when I decided that it was time to go out and see what's happening. That was the first time I saw people who actually are queer; in fact, some of my friends had transitioned into women.
Until then, I had mostly used Facebook for dating purposes. I had it for two years but shut it down when I met my current partner. If you look at fake profiles in Bhutan, we have lots of them. People don't trust each other easily, generally, and especially among the LGBTQ community.
Bhutan has advanced a lot because we are one of the fastest growing countries in the world. And even though most people have access to social media platforms now, social apps like Grindr have never been popular. It's just that because we are marginalised here and because, on social media, we see a lot of LGBT people outside our country getting attacked, beaten up, even murdered, that we live in constant fear. Keeping queer dating apps on our mobile phones could be a security risk. We may never know how other people may react.
We didn’t actively lobby for our rights, but our allies did
The full LGBTQ movement actually started from 2015 onwards, when we started organising programmes on HIV. Then, in 2017, different LGBT communities and groups came together and we decided that HIV is not our only concern. That's when we decided to form Rainbow Bhutan.
Coming up with the most urgent concerns of the community was the most difficult part, unlike in other countries, where LGBT members have different organisations. In Bhutan, being a small community, we couldn't look at different sexualities and genders separately. The one thing we mutually agreed on is that there's a lot of pressure on us even though no one has persecuted our community before.
Although we didn't actively lobby for the removal of this law, we talked about it to people who were actually listening to us. That's how it led to our current move to decriminalise sections 213 and 214 by our National Assembly (NA). The finance minister [Namgay Tshering] stood up for us and pleaded to the NA. I mean, no one ever does that! No minister of any country speaks up for their marginalised community. So that was a sight to see!
The passing of the bill [in the Lower House of NA] happened after the current government started reviewing the 2011 penal code of Bhutan. The removal of Sections 213 and 214 was never on the agenda, neither was it recommended by the legal task force. On June 10, the Legislative Committee unanimously agreed on doing away with the sections.
The move to scrap anti-LGBTQ laws feels surreal
If you notice, most movements in Asia have gone through their judiciary. We were advised to do that too but we never did it, mainly because we didn’t have the necessary resources. We also told ourselves that we need to have patience because our movement is very young. India took two decades to decriminalise homosexuality. Taiwan took almost three decades. So we told ourselves that we can take our time. And now, that patience has paid off.
When it actually happened, there was a rush of emotions. I saw my friends cry. I became speechless. I didn't know how to thank the ministers and the allies who actually stood with us. It was all surreal.
We've never had pride parades, and we never will
We have always believed that people never wanted to discriminate against us, or hated us for who we are. It's just that people didn't know about us. Even now, we have people coming to us and telling us they've never seen LGBTQ people. That's where we focus: on visibility and access to information. We went to schools, institutions, literally everywhere just to create awareness about us. People just need to understand, and they did!
Perhaps this is why Bhutan has also never had a single pride parade, and we don't plan on holding one. Pride parades are a form of activism where people go out on the streets and talk about policy and legal changes; that's not something that we Bhutanese agree with. Even as a marginalised community, we don't believe in going out on the streets. We believe in building human relations and talking one-to-one. Connecting heart-to-heart. That's where real change happens.
As told to Pallavi Pundir.
This article originally appeared on VICE IN.