Bhutan takes first steps toward decriminalizing homosexuality

Activists in front of the National Assembly after the historic decision to repeal section 213 and 214 of the Bhutanese Penal Code decriminalizing homosexuality. Image via the Facebook page of Namgay Zam/LGBT Bhutan. Used with permission.

Activists in front of the National Assembly after the historic decision to repeal section 213 and 214 of the Bhutanese Penal Code decriminalizing homosexuality. Image via the Facebook page of Namgay Zam/LGBT Bhutan. Used with permission.

In a historic effort, Bhutan’s national assembly, the country's lower house of parliament, took the first step toward decriminalizing what is described in their law books as ‘unnatural sex’, which includes homosexual acts.

On June 7, the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly (43 to 1) in favor of removing Sections 213 and 214 of the country’s penal code, which criminalizes sodomy and ‘unnatural’ sexual conduct. This step by the assembly was widely hailed by activists.

Laws rarely enforced

The news came as a surprise to many activists in the country, according to journalist Nagay Zam, who contributed to this Global Voices story. In 2013 Zam wrote in national and international media about the hidden LGBT community in Bhutan and the challenges they faced. Three-quarters of the Bhutanese population are Buddhist; Buddhism does not condemn homosexuality, instead teacheing values like compassion and tolerance.

The LGBT community in Bhutan, which has a population of about 825,000, is small. According to informal records, the LGBTQ+ community numbers around 92, of which only about 20 are publicly open about their gender identity and sexual orientation. Their main challenge has been the provisions 213 and 214 in the Penal Code of Bhutan which criminalizes homosexual relationship.

The country's penal code was introduced in 2004 and included provisions from British colonial law. Bhutan was historically a monarchy, but in 2007 the country held its first parliamentary elections as it transitioned to democracy. Section 213 of the penal code states:

A defendant shall be guilty of the offence of unnatural sex, if the defendant engages in sodomy or any other sexual conduct that is against the order of nature.

Section 214 states:

The offence of unnatural sex shall be a petty misdemeanor.

However, no charges were laid under these laws since the enactment of the penal code in 2004.

A progressive parliament

On May 29, 2019, a bill proposing the amendment the penal code of Bhutan was introduced which did not include the removal of these two sections criminalizing ‘unnatural sex’. During the deliberations in parliament, however, finance minister Lyonpo Namgay Tshering proposed that section 213 be amended. The minister emphasised that he was not trying to encourage homosexuality, but that the redundant law was an eyesore in the view the international community and should be removed from the penal code.

The legislative committee presented the new amendment to the National Assembly, and on June 7 members voted overwhelmingly to repeal sections 213 and 214.

The bill will now go to the National Council, the upper house of parliament, for further deliberation.

“We've waited all our lives”

Tashi Tsheten of Rainbow Bhutan, a group that represents the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, told media that many activists cried on learning of the decision. In a Facebook post, the group announced:

We only advocated to remove the Section from the Penal Code in order to advocate for recognition and inclusion for the LGBT+ community.
It gives us great pleasure to see progressive MPs who understand our issues and are willing to stand for what is right.

It's a great day to be alive!

Journalist Namgay Zam went live on Facebook to celebrate with other activists. She wrote:

Dear Finance Minister, Speaker, legislative commitee members, and MPs: Name Same Kadrinche. We shed tears of joy in parliament, today. ??

Never imagined this would happen in our lifetime, but it did.

Pema from Rainbow Bhutan commented in the video:

After 27 years, I feel fully human. Valid. ❤️

Activists hope that the National Council will follow through in validating the repeal of the two sections when the winter session starts in November. After the bill is passed, it will be sent for royal assent.

Namgay Zam wrote in Facebook:

Now we wait. Like my LGBTIQ friends say: We’ve waited all our lives. What difference does a few months make? ?

Namgay Zam, the executive director of the Journalists Association of Bhutan contributed to this post.

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