The Rainbow Dragon: Gay Pride in Bhutan

Oct 06, 2010
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Contrary to its penal code, the Bhutanese mindset is open when it comes to gays and lesbians, who have the freedom to do as they wish.


126 Bhutan may only have a population of half a million but it's a largely progressive and gay friendly society. (Photo: Debby Ng)

June was Gay Pride Month. I really wanted to attend at least one of the festivals to show my support and interest but I didn't manage to get to any. Anyhow, I hoped to spreak to Dr. Jeffrey Hopkins someday – a gay Buddhist scholar, author and 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 about what he would have to say.

While Bhutan is a very traditional society, we are also very accommodating and open. 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, or gender. Bhutan has been extremely progressive on many fronts, even when compared with the rest of the world, and it’s something we take great pride in.

Though gay, lesbian and transgender issues have never been discussed in the forefront, it’s not to say that they don’t exist. Like everything else in Bhutanese society, we make no big issue out of it. If you are one, you simply are. There are no hate mongering or public branding. Just as women have the right to do what they want and choose to live as they please, gays and lesbians have the freedom to do as they wish.

As in any society, people will gossip and talk. This can be particularly damaging in a fish-bowl society (Bhutan has a population of half a million) where every person (regardless of class, race, gender, occupation) can become the subject of gossip and rumours. That is about the only reason I can think of to explain why gay, lesbians and transgender people may be hesitant to come out.

Lesbians may number more than gay men, because women are likely to feel more comfortable to come out than Bhutanese men.

“The door to the closet in Bhutan is slowly swinging open...” starts an article in Bhutan Observer about a young cross-dressing woman eager to talk about her experiences of being in many relationships with other women. Apparently she was even married ("marriage" here means civil union) a couple of times to women who were aware of her sexuality.

Another article reports that lesbians may number more than gay men, because women are likely to feel more comfortable to come out than Bhutanese men (says a lot about Bhutanese women!). 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 abortion a punishable crime (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 enforced. What are we trying to prove and who are we trying to kid? Do we think that by making such a law our moral image is raised? I think it would be better if legislation was dictated by what society condones or has no aversions to. Such is the case 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 on the issue was. The Penal Code says nothing about it except under Article 213, UNNATURAL SEX: 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?

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)."

Herein lies the danger of having such an article that is open to interpretation. 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 prevent a person (gay, lesbian or transgender) from seeking protection should a crime be brought against him/her.

This kind of law (like the one on abortion) is not a reflection of Bhutanese society. The Bhutan I know is very tolerant and not the least bothered about penalizing a person for what he or she does in his/her personal life. 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.


Sonam Ongmo is a Bhutanese writer based in New York.


This post was originally published on Dragon Tales in July 2010.