The landlocked Himalayan nation of Bhutan became the latest country to move positively on LGBTIQ rights this week. The small country follows the lead of neighbouring India where the Supreme Court ordered the decriminalisation of homosexuality last year.
The Bhutanese Finance Minister, Lyonpo Namgay Tshering, introduced the legislation into Bhutan’s National Assembly. There, legislators voted to remove two sections of the penal code. Those sections outlaw ‘unnatural sex’, defined as ‘sodomy or any other sexual conduct against the order of nature’.
The legislation passed with only one member dissenting. Following the vote, the legislation passes to the Upper House for ratification.
Formerly, gay sex risked a jail term of one year, though no one ever faced prosecution under the law.
Prior to the parliamentary sitting, Minister Tshering described the law to a local newspaper as ‘redundant’.
He described it as “an eyesore for international human rights bodies.”
“There is a high degree of acceptability of the LGBT community in our society,” he said.
Tolerance in Bhutan
Bhutan enjoys a reputation for tolerance towards its LGBTIQ communities.
The LGBT Bhutan Facebook page which advocates for LGBTIQ people in Brunei, posted in 2016 regarding local attitudes.
“While the world is fighting bigots, religious extremists, hate crimes, people of Bhutan have been fortunate.
“Bhutan that way will always be unique, embracing all people as they are, irrespective of their sex, orientation or class.
“Bhutanese values or the Buddhist values is to love all beings, be kind and compassionate and live in harmony happily.”
Tashi Tsheten, Director of Rainbow Bhutan, spoke of the elation of local LGBTIQ people present at the Assembly for the vote.
“We have high hopes but will continue to lobby the Senate to make sure that the amendment becomes a law.”
“It would mean that the community can finally be happy in Bhutan knowing that their existence is acknowledged.”
Local activists say the Bhutanese people accept transgender people quite readily. However, they often regard homosexuality as ‘unnatural’.
Currently, Bhutanese law gives no recognition to LGBTIQ communities.
Gross National Happiness
Previously an absolute monarchy, Bhutan transitioned peacefully to constitutional monarchy in 2008. The then king instigated the change.
A former king devised the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness’, an index to measure the happiness and well-being of the population. It considers factors such as the conservation of local customs, care for the environment, good governance and economic growth.
When he first introduced the concept, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck declared, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.”
LGBTIQ Rights and Decriminalisation in Asia
Recently Asian countries show the path forward for LGBTIQ rights.
In 2017, Nepal recognised LGBTIQ rights as basic human rights. The country now figures among the most tolerant in Asia on LGBTIQ rights.
2018 saw the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India, while in May 2019, Taiwan legalised same-sex marriage.
However, also in 2019, the Sultanate of Brunei introduced laws punishing sexual crimes including homosexuality with whipping, amputation and death by stoning.
After world-wide protests the autocratic sultan Hassanal Bolkiah announced the extension of the current moratorium on the death penalty to those new laws. Nevertheless, he failed to amend or repeal the laws.
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