LGBTQ issues in Bhutan: Challenges and progress

In Bhutan, the LGBTQ community continues to face significant challenges, primarily stemming from the lack of acceptance in society, particularly within family units.

Despite some sections of society having access to modern media and gaining knowledge about the LGBTQ community, a large percentage of the population remains unaware of their existence. This lack of awareness is perpetuated by the absence of LGBTQ education in the schools, leading to bullying and mistreatment of LGBTQ students.

Although Bhutan has made strides in LGBTQ rights by repealing Sections 314 and 315 of the Penal Code of Bhutan, which decriminalizes homosexuality, there is still a long way to go in fully protecting individuals within the community.

An individual who is pronounced as He/They shared, “Within the LGBTQ community, transgender individuals face a higher degree of discrimination and prejudice. Many transgender men and women are forced to leave school due to bullying and lack of protection, resulting in lower qualifications and high unemployment rates within the transgender community.”

Further adding, “Another significant issue faced by the LGBTQ community is the lack of representation in the media. The absence of authentic voices and role models hinders public education about the community and its issues. Stereotypical portrayals in popular media, such as movies, often perpetuate harmful slurs and misrepresentations. For example, from the movie, Singye and Galem 2, Gyem Dorji’s overtly flamboyant character got a new name for the queer people as “Maja” meaning a peacock, which to me was demeaning and ill representation.”

He/They also added. “To address these challenges, it is crucial to enact laws that specifically protect LGBTQIA+ individuals from discrimination. Initiating projects to raise awareness and ensure the inclusion of transgender children in schools can also make a significant difference. Creating safe and accepting environments within family units and homes is essential for LGBTQIA+ children. Additionally, advocating for more authentic representation in the media can help dispel misconceptions and promote understanding.”

Sangay Loday identifies as a non-binary individual by the pronoun they/them/their/it shared that individual within the LGBTQ community face difficulty in social settings, such as parties, where the concept of gender or sexuality is often misunderstood. Insensitive questions and expectations perpetuate stereotypes and restrict individuals from expressing their true selves in public spaces, taxis, and bathrooms.

“I identify as a non-binary individual, someone who does not identify as a man or woman. We grew up in an environment where we are identified as man and woman by birth and continue to be identified throughout our life like that. For an individual like me, I find it very difficult to use public washrooms, as in our country gender neutral washrooms are quite limited. If I wear makeup people expect me to use the women’s washroom and if I don’t wear makeup, I am expected to use the men’s.”

“I even had instances where I went to a club on Wednesday during ladies’ free night and was asked to reveal my private parts just to prove that I belong from a different sexuality that common people perceive. I really felt uncomfortable.”

Sangay also said, “Despite these ongoing challenges, Bhutan has made progress in acknowledging the LGBTQIA+ community. However, there is still a need for further education and involvement in various spheres, including education, politics, society, economy, and law. While legal protections exist under the Constitution, there is a lack of comprehensive rights and protections for LGBTQ individuals.”

Two organizations, Queer Voices of Bhutan and Pride Bhutan, are actively working with the LGBTQ community. Queer Voices of Bhutan serves as an advocacy platform, curating workshops, dialogues, and conferences to engage and provide information about available services. Pride Bhutan focuses on providing services to the community and collaborates with organizations like RENEW.

The lack of visibility and right representation in media and public spaces contributes to misconceptions about the LGBTQ community. To address this, Queer Voices of Bhutan is creating safe spaces for individuals of any gender or sexuality to come forward and understand the wider perspectives of the LGBTQ community. They have developed toolkits and curated content on comprehensive sexuality education, working with institutions like RENEW.

One major issue faced by transgender individuals is accessing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) as part of their transition. Limited counselors and information about HRT pose significant challenges. Additionally, the transgender community struggles with self-acceptance, communication, and accessibility to necessary products and services.

Transgender women specifically face stigmatization and discrimination in society, while youths with different gender identities experience sexual harassment and bullying that often leads to dropping out of school. Ridicule and mockery from service providers, health professionals, and law enforcement further marginalize them. Discrimination in the job market limits employment opportunities, particularly for transwomen, who are often perceived to belong in the entertainment sectors.

The lack of specific references to the LGBTQ community in the Labor Act and Education policy leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and marginalization.

An individual shared that same-sex relationships have no legal protection and can be easily evicted from their homes without any legal recourse.

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