LGBT vacations in Bhutan

Tolerance is not a good thing. If you are tolerating this, it means you think it's something wrong that you will tolerate. But you have to go beyond that – you have to respect.
– Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, Buddhist Lama and filmmaker from Bhutan

Attitudes towards LGBT people in Bhutan

Bhutan famously created the policy of Gross National Happiness, whereby the country’s wellbeing is measured by the contentment of its people, rather than its financial wealth. With this in mind, you would expect Bhutan to have made life as comfortable and accepting as possible for all of its citizens, regardless of gender, sexual orientation and marital status.
To a certain extent this is true. While Bhutan remains deeply religious, Buddhism does not actually condemn homosexuality. Bhutan is also less conservative than many of its neighbours, with many young Bhutanese starting to have sexual relationships in their teens, and no stigma attached to marrying a woman who is not a virgin. Divorce is also not uncommon. However, Bhutan is strongly attached to its traditions and national identity, an identity which has been preserved through its cultural isolation from the rest of the world. Television was not broadcast until 1999, and although the internet was installed in the same year, barely 14 percent of the population had access to it. By 2016 that figure stood at just 37 percent[1].

For most Bhutanese, then, there is little access to the world beyond their own communities. Many don’t realise that LGBT people exist, and even those that do, often believe that they don’t exist in Bhutan. It is simply not part of the Bhutanese identity. In this isolated country, anything unfamiliar is considered to be ‘Western’, non Bhutanese, and perhaps even harmful to the people’s much cherished happiness[2].

But, of course, gay, bisexual and transgender Bhutanese people do exist. Many struggle to forge their own identities in a kingdom with no representation of LGBT people and little sense of an LGBT community. While they may not be harassed or attacked as happens elsewhere, Bhutanese may be reluctant to come out as they fear rejection, a sense of shame, and humiliating their families. In this traditional society, marriage and family is hugely important – and it is perhaps this, rather than their sexual identity, that stigmatises LGBT Bhutanese. Many marry, due to tradition and social pressure, but also to hide their sexuality. There are reportedly high levels of mental illness and depression amongst the gay and transgender community, with over a fifth of gay and bisexual men admitting to having attempted suicide more than once according to a 2016 survey[3]. The same survey also revealed high levels of drug and alcohol use.

But attitudes do seem to be changing rapidly. With the spread of the internet and social media, LGBT activists have set up Facebook pages which act as a shared space for the LGBT community, and are also used to campaign for greater recognition.
High profile Buddhist teachers as well as politicians have spoken out in support of the LGBT community. In this video, the filmmaker and Buddhist lama Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche speaks about going beyond tolerance, and declares that “your sexual orientation has got nothing to do with understanding or not understanding the truth. You could be gay, you could be a lesbian, you could be straight… we never know which one will get enlightened first.”

Government official and politician Neten Zangmo is one of the highest profile women in Bhutan. During a speech to high school students in 2014, she reminded them that “Romantic relationships, by the way, can be boy-boy or girl-girl.” These are small steps, of course, but in this tiny country of close knit communities, word travels fast, and we hope that in time LGBT lifestyles will be considered as Bhutanese as Buddhism.

A history of LGBT rights in Bhutan

Although Bhutan does not have an openly aggressive culture towards homosexuals, same sex sexual activity is criminalised under a law dating back to colonial times. Its 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.’ This is punishable with a prison sentence of between one and 12 months. However, as ‘criminal intent’ must be proven in order to be found guilty of this offence, there have been no reported convictions.

There is no legal recognition of same sex couples; gay marriage does not exist in Bhutan.

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LGBT travel in Bhutan

LGBT travelers in Bhutan should not experience any discrimination or harassment. Bhutan’s main issue with homosexuality seems to be that it is ‘not Bhutanese’, so overseas LGBT visitors are of no concern. In general, same sex couples should be fine to request double rooms, but do check with your tour operator to ensure that the accommodation owners are happy with this arrangement. Public displays of affection are not common in Bhutan, by couples of any orientation, so all travelers should avoid these out of respect. However, you will see plenty of affection and physical contact between groups of friends of the same sex. This can offer some form of discretion for same sex couples who hold hands or have their arms around each other, as it will be assumed that they are friends. There is no gay scene in Bhutan, and no LGBT venues or events such as Pride.

While all the tour operators we work with describe themselves as LGBT friendly, it is worth asking questions to learn more about how this is put into practice in their Bhutan vacations. It will be relatively straightforward to find open minded hotels and tour guides in Thimpu and other larger cities, but how about in more conservative areas where people may not have knowingly come into contact with LGBT people before? Will there be any issues during community tours or homestays? Responsible operators should be able to share information about customs and beliefs, not just for Bhutan as a whole, but for individual regions and cultures across the country. We always do our best to call out discriminatory or other unethical behaviour within the tourism industry, but we also recognise that there is a very fine – and at times blurred – line between expressing your identity (whether on the grounds of sexuality, religion or political beliefs, for instance), and being respectful of local customs as a responsible traveler. We would generally advise, for example, avoiding skimpy, see through or overly tight clothing, as well as public displays of affection. However, this advice applies for all visitors, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Sources:
[1] www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/bhutan/
[2] www.thedailybeast.com/gay-in-nirvana-bhutans-lgbt-population-emerges-from-the-shadows
[3] Results of a survey carried out by Integrated Biological and Behavioral Surveillance in 2016

Read more in our guide to LGBT vacations
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: torbakhopper] [Intro: Arian Zwegers] [Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche: Arian Zwegers]
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