The LGBTQ+ journey and creating space for it

By Dechen Wangdi

Between 2015 and 2020, the LGBTQ+ community in Bhutan embarked on a journey of gradual progress and increasing visibility. Despite facing societal norms that often silenced their voices, members of the LGBTQ+ community worked tirelessly to carve out spaces for themselves. Their efforts were largely unheralded, with minimal media attention and few formal events to mark their presence.

Reflecting on the first formal queer event, which coincided with the observation of International Day Against Homophobia on 17 May 2015, Pema Dorji, a queer advocate, recalls the hesitations expressed by community members and various stakeholders, including government officials, civil society organizations, and developmental partners.

“Many folks, both within the LGBTQ+ community and outside of it, were hesitant to attend due to a lack of understanding about queer identities,” Pema explained, “But things took a significant turn in 2020 when the country changed its laws in favor of the LGBTQ+ community.”

One significant milestone during this period came with the amendment of sections 213 and 214 of Bhutan’s Penal Code, decriminalizing homosexuality. This legal change signaled a seismic shift in attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community and provided a newfound sense of legitimacy to their existence. With the shackles of criminalization lifted, LGBTQ+ individuals in Bhutan began to assert their rights and demand recognition.

In the wake of this legal victory, a surge of queer formal events emerged across the country. These events, both formal and informal in nature, served as platforms for community engagement, activism, and celebration. One notable initiative that emerged from this wave of LGBTQ+ empowerment is “Queer Talks Bhutan.”

Queer Voices of Bhutan, “Queer Talks Bhutan” hosted by Namgay Zam has become a cornerstone of the LGBTQ+ community’s visibility efforts. Now in its fourth season, the talk show provides a safe and welcoming space for LGBTQ+ individuals to share their stories and experiences. From light-hearted discussions to poignant narratives about identity and acceptance, “Queer Talks Bhutan” offers a diverse range of perspectives that reflect the richness and complexity of LGBTQ+ life in Bhutan.

Pema, who also spearheaded the initiative behind Queer Talks, remarked, “Back then, the LGBTQ+ community was often seen through the lens of their issues rather than their human stories. I recognized a gap there, and the talk show format really intrigued me.”

Tashi Tsheten, one of the founders of Queer Voices of Bhutan, expressed, “Queer Talks Bhutan emerged as an innovative avenue for advocating for increased visibility of the LGBTQ+ community in Bhutan.”

What sets Queer Talks Bhutan apart is its commitment to amplifying the voices of LGBTQ+ individuals in a society where they have long been marginalized. By providing a platform for open dialogue and meaningful conversations, the talk show not only fosters a sense of community but also sparks important discussions about policy change and social acceptance. The talk show also drew attention to policy issues, with key parliamentarians expressing their support and advocating for necessary changes to foster LGBTQ+ acceptance in Bhutan.

Tashi stated, “In general, the feedback has been constructive, and some institutions have even utilized the episodes as educational resources for their work.”

Discussing the impact of initiatives like “Queer Talks Bhutan,” Tashi remarked, “While it’s challenging to quantify their overall effects, the overwhelmingly positive responses on social media have been encouraging. Storytelling has proven to be a powerful tool for advancing queer advocacy, positioning such initiatives as uniquely positioned to drive social change and foster acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community.”

The evolution of queer events in Bhutan underscores the shifting attitudes towards LGBTQ+ visibility and acceptance.

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