The following reports and interviews pretty much describe homosexual life in this small mountainous Buddhist country. In a word, same-sex activity is technically illegal but the anti-gay laws are being challenge and are likely soon to be removed. No one has ever been prosecuted for being LGBT
Note: This story about gay Bhutan consists of several parts. This first section is based on a recent tour of western Bhutan that my husband and I took in late 2019. We booked it online and were met at Paro airport with kind and attentive staff, guide Tashi and driver Dhendup (attired in traditional robes or ‘gho’.) of Windhorse Tours. All tourists entering Bhutan have to book a tour. We only had two people in our tour—ourselves. During our visit to this beautiful country I interviewed two gay activists in the capital Thimphu city about being gay in this culture. Their story is presented second here followed by other reports written a few years ago based on online interviews.
Intro: The Country
Bhutan is a pretty state of Himalayan mountains and forested steep valleys, of ancient Buddhist traditions, modern hotels with WiFi, layered temples, a benevolent former king and a reasonable parliament. Foreigners are limited to tour groups and guided itineraries. The little country (population about 800,000) is squeezed between India and China. The capital is at 8000 feet altitude and in early December, when we visited, there was mild sunny weather.
Nearly every man wears traditional dress during working hours: knee-length socks, robe-like cloth wrapped around their bodies and secured with a belt, known as a ‘Gho’. Women mostly wear an apron-like dress, called ‘Kira’ that has bright colors with intricate patterns and embroideries. These costumes are usually worn during working hours while non-working young men often wear jeans and western style shirts.
The unusual title of ‘Gross National Happiness’ often attributed to the country is both a touristic catch-phrase and only a partial truthful label. Most people in the streets and villages do not walk around with broad smiles; rather they are serious working class citizens who are not plagued with problems seen in other countries such as wide-spread air pollution, overcrowded cities, national debt, corrupt politicians, religious conflicts, environmental degradation, excess economic consumption and financial anxiety. Bhutan has free health care, is carbon neutral and is devoid of international tensions. In 1999 it banned use of plastic bags.
On the other hand the country has struggled with a Nepal-Bhutan refugee problem for a generation that resists resolution. Some of these settlers, Lhotshampas (‘southerners’), stirred up trouble years ago and demanded citizenship and independence within Bhutan, which was refused. The conflict caused the Bhutanese army to be activated; today there are refugee camps still operating which are sources of agitation and discontent. Many of these Nepali language-speaking Bhutanese southerner people have emigrated to other countries, especially India, as their only recourse.
In the past 20 years air pollution has increased due to industrial emissions from India. Domestically, air pollution from Bhutan’s four cement factories has been attributed to lower crop production in those areas. There are concerns about climate change and glacier melting. Scientific studies have offered ambiguous results. Other worries are deforestation, proper waste disposal and reduced water sources.
Most of the problems are of course not visible to visitors to Bhutan. The government manages them on a regular basis and has kept any one of the challenges from overwhelming the parliament. Most of the problems are inherent in any modern civilization despite happiness levels.
Meeting Tashi and Pema a modern gay couple.
Any accurate description of this small country must include the small LGBT rights organization Rainbow Bhutan directed by an articulate and handsome young man named Tashi Tsheten who showed up for lunch in a T-shirt and jeans along with his partner Pema Doji, wearing wide-rimmed glasses on his youthful face.
We ate healthy food of veggies, rice, chicken, egg plant and potatoes, with ice cream for dessert. (We turned down the offer to drink Coke.) These two lovers were a delight to see and hear as they described their lives and work, speaking perfect English, a school subject taught as the second language in Bhutan. They have been together for four years and currently both live in Tashi’s family home. Pema considers Tashi’s mom as his mom as well. They had a lot to say some of which I missed because they spoke quickly with a Bhutanese accent. But here is what I understood.
Tashi is the coordinator of Rainbow Bhutan. a small gay rights and advocacy organization that is not registered yet since homosexuality is technically illegal in the kingdom. No one has ever been arrested for offending the law inherited from India (imposed by the conquering British in the 19th century) but could be used to harass gay citizens. Despite the lack of persecutions the law casts a pall over otherwise healthy law abiding citizens for no common sense reason. This is in contrast with the modernization of the country initiated by the former king (who abdicated in 2016 in favor of a parliament).
In an interview on the ‘Vice.com’ website Tashi described how Rainbow Bhutan started: “The full LGBTQ movement actually started from 2015 onwards, when we started organizing programs on HIV. Then, in 2017, different LGBT communities and groups came together and we decided that HIV was not our only concern. That’s when we decided to form Rainbow Bhutan.” The most obvious challenge was to get rid of the laws that make gays criminals. Tashi said, “although we didn’t actively lobby for the removal of this law, we talked about it to people who were actually listening to us. That’s how it led to our current success to invalidate sections 213 and 214 of our National Assembly law; the lower house of parliament has approved the change. The finance minister [Namgay Tshering] stood up for us and pleaded to the NA. Now we are waiting for the upper house to follow with their own vote.” (photo left: our guide under a bodhi tree)
Pema is Outreach Coordinator with the Health Information and Service Center (HISC) under the Ministry of Health Bhutan, offering information and counseling regarding the disease. He does outreach to organizations such as police, teachers, businesses and of course schools. He is well suited for this since he appears school age despite being 27. Younger students listen as he describes not just the details of prevention, transmission and treatment of HIV but also the emotional drama of becoming HIV positive. (He himself is HIV-.) Despite widespread worldwide information some youth ignore it and engage in high-risk behavior then become traumatized if they sero-convert.
So when Tashi and Pema met at a health conference four years ago they found they had much in common growing up. Physical attraction also helped to pull them closer and keeps them in love. When Pema has an occasional anxiety episode Tashi understands and helps Pema soothe his way through it.
Although they do not work together their foci are similar: educating and raising awareness about health, human rights and tolerance toward gays and HIV, both highly stigmatized attributes around the world; making people aware of the social disease of homophobia and trying to change behavior and attitudes toward it. Despite the national slogan ‘Gross National Happiness’ the reality on the street is that many people have negative or indifferent issues about homosexuality. It is not common and is therefore misunderstood by the majority of heterosexual Bhutanese who mostly learn about it through negative gossip. Minimal sex education is taught twice a month in secondary schools. But there is little to nothing offered about diverse sexuality such as gay/lesbian, trans or bisexuality.
Rainbow Bhutan comes into play here as Tashi outreaches to other LGBT Bhutanese to form a support network for personal and social growth through national seminars and meetings as well as public advertising (photo left), recreations such as ball games and fun walks. Funding for Rainbow Bhutan comes from generous friends, not yet from international charities since RB is not fully legal and not officially registered. Tashi’s work as RB coordinator is voluntary so far but there is hope for a salaried position soon. He sees the need for making RB more public with more educational activities.
Founded in 2014 with five members the community today has over 130 registered members. Initially it was called the ‘LGBT+ community in Bhutan’ to represent the community and assess the needs of the LGBT+ population living in Bhutan. In 2017 the community was renamed Rainbow Bhutan, which now functions as an independent LGBT+ network in Bhutan with its own Secretariat Office and management team.
In October 2018 the world-wide IDAHO day (International Day Against Homophobia) was commemorated at Hotel Migmar in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Health officials, representatives from the civil society, health organizations, media, Lhak-Sam (Network of People Living With HIV & AIDS in Bhutan), UNFPA (UN Population Fund) and RENEW (founded by Her Majesty the Queen Mother in 2004; RENEW stands for Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women). RENEW is a non-profit organization dedicated to the empowerment of women and children in Bhutan, with specific attention to the survivors of domestic violence and sexual and gender based violence. RENEW provides a wide range of care and support for women, men and children impacted by such violence and inequality. Also, individual supporters joined the events in IDAHO with the theme ‘Alliances for Solidarity’.
IDAHO is observed every year to bring attention to the discrimination and violence LGBT people face and also to recognize advancements in LGBT equality. Bhutan first observed IDAHO in 2016 so the presence of public discussion about human sexuality is still fairly new.
It would seem that such small country as Bhutan with its closely knit society would not have need for such a program as RENEW but this is a place where ‘Gross National Happiness’ does not reach into the minds of all citizens. Some people fail to sufficiently learn how to deal with the complexities of modern life and do not know how to solve interpersonal problems or social confusion. One of the most difficult issues for a rural population to comprehend is diversity of sexuality; for them and many urban dwellers, same-sex attraction and affection are alien concepts. It is confusing to people who otherwise are kind families and parents. Historically embedded in the Bhutanese culture, from Indian and British influences, ideas about homosexuality have been handed down through generations as suspicious and not ‘correct’, a ‘hindrance’ in Buddhist thinking. (This despite reports about ‘conjugal’ monk relationships in the monastic system, which of course are kept secret.)
So the work continues to educate against anti-gay prejudice and ignorance. Without thinking carefully, some people are elected or positioned in leadership roles of police or parliament, unintentionally perpetuate homophobia by not speaking against it or participating in prejudicial activity (mockery or joking or gossip) and in so doing demean innocent gay people.
Tashi and Pema (photo left) were joined by other rights advocates at a conference in Chiang Rai, Thailand in 2016. Bhutan MPs Madan Kumar Chhetri and Ugyen Wangdi also attended the Forum as part of a fact-finding mission because, “although there are clearly LGBT Bhutanese , they are not prominent in society,” as trans activist Ugyen Tshering shared with the Forum.
More recently, Bhutanese native Passang Dorji—a Bhutanese politician and member of the National Assembly of Bhutan since October 2018—came out as gay on TV in a public 2018 interview. “Coming out we hope can change other people’s behavior to us…we do exist… I have my scars from being the closet but now I talk about it to leaders and doctors…it pushes me forward…we now have a network for our community…”
Also, prominent Bhutanese Buddhist teacher, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, also has spoken positively on LGBT rights saying: “Your sexual orientation has nothing to do with understanding or not understanding the truth. You could be gay, you could be lesbian, you could be straight, we never know which one will get enlightened first… Tolerance is not a good thing. If you are tolerating this, it means that you think it’s something wrong that you will tolerate. But you have to go beyond that – you have to respect.”
Lunch With the Activists
During our lunch with these two articulate and serious minded young activists Pema expressed himself as a shy person but it was hard to get a word in edgewise as he enthused about his own work and the future for LGBT life in Bhutan. It is not often he gets to speak freely to interested visitors and we appreciated every word.
A further consideration about LGBT and HIV work in this quiet country: here is not a hostile culture where differences in people are causes for suspicion or discrimination. The temperament of Bhutanese people is not edgy, not suspicious as found, for example, in Russia or Serbia where the mere mention of homosexuality is cause for combat and cruel words. Despite a reluctant social overlay in Bhutanese society regarding sex-talk I felt a vein of curiosity and respect toward us from these two gay guys, as we did toward them. We genuinely wanted to appreciate their experience of being different in their culture, insulated from foreign gay pride events in, say, San Francisco. Both men spoke with courage and vision about their educational work. They are pioneers in the advocacy fields of human sexuality and health care in Bhutan, issues that are politely avoided by most people.
During our visit with the activists, our assigned driver and guide (both straight and married) were gracious and unperturbed even as they drove us to and from our luncheon meeting knowing full well we were all gay. Perhaps as proof of their attitude came later that day when our guide (another Tashi) invited us to visit his home, a modest rented two-bedroom apartment in Thimphu city, to meet his wife and 6 year-old son. I felt it was a gesture of trust and welcome that reflected his culture. Nothing to fear; kindness.
Bullying seems to be universal. Despite being a remote Himalayan country far from major cities in India and with a benevolent king that advocated happiness, Tashi said he was teased for being effeminate and the way he walked. ”People tried to change my behavior and even in my friend circle because I hung out with mostly girls. They questioned why I didn’t play sports. He was told told to walk different: ‘you walk like a girl’ they said. He tried to be different but couldn’t pull it off all the time so he gave up. “I have to be me,” he said with a laugh. So my first response to bullying was to develop a defense mechanism: I ignored people. It worked well for me” as he grew bigger and more confident.
But it’s not the same for everyone. Pema developed self-doubt, and anxiety because of being bullied in school for his less-than-macho manner of being. “I became fearful of my schoolmates. I was not able to ignore people and their comments and move on, like Tashi did. But as I grew older and felt a deeper understanding about the naturalness of being gay I have recovered a lot from that. Being in partnership with Tashi has helped reassure me. My public work talking to groups about health care has also encouraged me. No young gay person should suffer like that. I had no one then to help me including my family.” His words were a universal plea often heard in every country where LGBT individuals feel alone with no social or personal support in their youth. Having a loving partner, in any culture, can provide comfort and strength. Pema is lucky in that regard.
Recent note: In early January 2020, Rainbow Bhutan and Amnesty International issued an international plea urging the Upper House of Parliament to follow the Lower House to decriminalize homosexuality:
“Historic Opportunity: Bhutan must seize an historic opportunity to secure equal rights for LGBTI people in the country, Amnesty International calls on the upper house of parliament to pass a bill decriminalizing same-sex relationships, following the lower house’s vote in favor of repealing discriminatory sections of the penal code last June. The bill proposing revised amendments will be presented to the National Council, the upper house of parliament, this month (January 2020). “If the amendment bill is passed by the upper house, this will be an important step in recognizing that Bhutan supports the equality of all citizens regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. For a country that prides itself on the happiness of its people, Bhutan must without any delay rid itself of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex relationships,” said Babu Ram Pant, South Asia Campaigner at Amnesty International.
Bhutan’s Tourist Image
Flip open the Lonely Planet guide to Bhutan and read charming comments such as “nestling in the heart of the great Himalayas…for centuries remained aloof from the rest of the world… the environment is pristine, the scenery and architecture awesome and the people hospitable and charming.”
Bhutan is essentially a remote country with great PR, an ‘exotic’ place where virtually all travelers go in group tours to see the spectacle of snow-capped mountains and costumed farmers shepherded by a benevolent figurehead monarch who monitors the pace of progress in order not to disrupt the ancient ways.
“The largest and most colorful festivals (tsechus),” continues Lonely Planet, “ take place at Bhutan’s dzongs (monasteries) once a year, in honor of Guru Rinpoche who brought Buddhism to Bhutan. They normally take place in spring and autumn. Tsechus consist of up to five days of spectacular pageantry, masked dances and religious allegorical plays that have remained unchanged for centuries. As well as being a vital living festival and an important medium of Buddhist teaching, tsechus are huge social gatherings.
“The Bhutanese revel and rejoice together, dressed in their finest clothes and jewelry, in an infectiously convivial atmosphere where humor and devotion go hand in hand. For visitors, the tsechus provide an ideal opportunity to appreciate the essence of the Bhutanese character.”
What is not mentioned in the guide books and glossy brochures is what it’s like to love another person of the same gender as oneself.
(from Lonely Planet guide to Bhutan)
“The late king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, is regarded as the father of modern Bhutan because of the progressive development plans he initiated for Bhutan’s future. When China took control of Tibet, Bhutan’s policy of total isolation lost its appeal and the country was formally admitted to the United Nations in 1971. The current past monarch (he resigned in 2008), Jigme Singye Wangchuck, continued the policy of controlled development with particular focus on the preservation of the environment and Bhutan’s unique culture. Among his official policies were economic self-reliance and what is known as ‘Gross National Happiness’–modern life yet in harmony with cultural traditions and religious morality.
“His coronation on 2 June 1974 was the first time the international media were allowed to enter the kingdom, and marked Bhutan’s debut appearance on the world stage. The first group of paying tourists arrived later that year.”
In a major political reform in June 1998, the king dissolved the Council of Ministers and announced that ministers formerly appointed by him would need to stand for open election. A rotating chairman now leads the cabinet as head of the government. On 6 November 2008, 28-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, eldest son of the, King was crowned King as a constitutional monarch.
But that was just the beginning of the reforms. What has really shaken Bhutanese society in recent times is the advent of television, since 1999. Although the government tries valiantly to produce as much local content as possible, the majority of programming is foreign, and is exposing the curious Bhutanese to the pleasures and perils of modernity. In recent years, it’s said that crime and domestic violence rates have increased, though it’s inaccurate to assume that the two are directly related.
Bhutan has been described as ‘a living museum’ because its ancient dzongs and temples are still the focus of modern life. Although it is a highly Buddhist Himalayan state (probably the last intact place to be so) it is not only a nation of saintly, ascetic, other-worldly monks, but a vibrant, fun-loving and well-educated population. Every aspect of life in the kingdom is guided by the ethics of its official religion, Drukpa Kagyu Buddhism, and without a rudimentary understanding of this type of Buddhism it’s hard to get a handle on Bhutan.
A more thorough description of politics can be read at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhutan
A Different Kind of Gay Bhutan Story
This story about ‘gay Bhutan’ is not what I had in mind when I started to write it. Often my stories begin with Internet contacts with LGBT natives of a country who are willing to speak about their experiences of living in their societies. Other times I meet native people by serendipity or by appointment after I arrive.
Originally, before I had visited the country, I posted a story about gay Bhutan based on an e-mail interview with a self-proclaimed gay native Bhutanese man in his fifties, a medical professional educated in India now living in Bhutan; married with two children.
However, his was not a cheerful story. He was frustrated and emotionally lonely. He had been conditioned by his culture to take a wife and produce offspring despite feelings toward other men. So he had lived a dutiful life while going off on occasion to India for pleasure and intimacy to sooth his longings.
Perhaps because he had gone to school outside Bhutan and had experienced a democratic and pluralistic life very different from his rural childhood his view of Bhutan was quite negative. He felt the king (at that time) was dictatorial and tightly controlled the lives of his subject, such as only recently allowing TV into the country. My source person–whom I will call by the pseudonym Chong–was also soured against his government because, in his view, the government had expelled thousands of Nepales-speaking people to refugee camps in neighboring Nepal. They were accused of fomenting rebellion again the King. The issue is still today controversial and debated.
Further, Chong claimed that homosexuals in Bhutan could be thrown in jail for life for being homosexual (no such penalty exists on the books in Bhutan which collect dust with no apparent action against gays).
A few months after this story was posted, GlobalGayz received messages—polite and irate–claiming the story was negatively biased, inaccurate and incomplete in presenting Bhutan’s true face and temperament regarding homosexuality, the monarchy and its dealings with the refugee situation.
In fairness to the differing views presented to GlobalGayz I have re-written the gay Bhutan story to include these opposing descriptions. The original critical interview can be seen in Bhutan News and Reports (#1) on this site.
Deciding which version of gay Bhutan is more, or less, accurate is difficult for anyone without a substantive visit to Bhutan. Even then, evoking conversation about the private lives of people in this conservative country is delicate to say the least.
So, given these odds of getting closer to some truth about gay Bhutan, here is what I have pieced together—incomplete, interpretive, tentative as it may be:
Another Gay Bhutan Story
A story about gay Bhutan is also a commentary about opening to the world, not just to India and China which enormously surround it geographically, but opening to the 21st century that is impinging on centuries-old hidden traditions and mind sets. Tourism, television, Internet and materialism have crept in as new experiences for young curious minds. Governance has peacefully shifted from monarchy to constitutional democracy (initiated by the king himself) with the King’s abdication in 2008, with the reluctant consent of the populace. Th King’s eldest son is now the ceremonial figurehead. (photo left: Tiger’s Nest temple built into the side of a steep cliff)
As the outside world brings new sources of cash, clothing styles and commerce, it also brings its categories and labels for sexual behavior.
A study of ‘gay’ Bhutan requires one to ease up on the use of the standard western words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ as they apply to the Bhutanese way of life. There is no word for homosexual, heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered in the Tibetan languages, nor is there a word for blow job or cunnilingus.
Despite the presence among some age-old Himalayan monastic traditions in the mentor/apprentice relationship that sometimes involve (unspoken) physical intimacy there is no vocabulary for such an affiliation. It is said (by whom?) that some young men are ‘chosen’ as Chablum—acolytes–whose responsibility is mostly ‘incense’, selected by ranking monks to become ‘favorites’ without overtly saying so. There is no particular dialogue or deliberation about this sentient aspect of monastic duties. (This does not presume ephebephilia (attraction to older teens) is widespread or common in Bhutan. These comments refer only to scattered anecdotes.)
To be sure, the vast majority of folks in Bhutan are heterosexual and have virtually no knowledge of sexual variations. The subject of homosexuality is not on the common tongue and there is no written or broadcast information about it in the home or school.
Technically, there is a law on the books, imposed from India more than a century ago that was inherited from antiquated British Victorian morality laws that punished ‘acts against nature’ with prison (one year at most.) Not surprising, such laws have long been ignored in Bhutan and there is no report of anyone having been arrested for consensual adult same-sex acts.
What is ‘gay’?
That said, it’s hardly new knowledge that sexual varieties exist in all cultures, whether or not they are socially permitted or vehemently repressed; indeed, human behavior vastly pre-dates strictures of culture, politics and religion. (photo right, native costume ‘gho’)
So it comes as no surprise that Bhutan has its own sub-culture of homosexuality, but again this simplistic label does not accurately represent the ‘practice’ of MSM (men who have sex with men) tradition here. What, then, do we call this ‘thing’ that happens occasionally between same-gender folks?
It has been suggested to me by more than one person that a better phrase might be ‘male intimacy’ or ‘male love’ to help avoid some of the implications of the ‘gay’ label.
One cultural researcher suggested, “it truly is inaccurate to discuss gay, lesbian, and bisexual men and women in Bhutan when they have no equivalent words and do not think of themselves this way.” (In the 21st century these words are becoming less true; our interview hosts, Tashi ans Pema, clearly identify as ‘gay’, as do most members of Rainbow Bhutan.
Perhaps MSM may be useful here but this moniker falls short of encompassing the ‘open secret’ of bi-sexuality among many Bhutanese men that has been reported; indeed, the label certainly falls short of any emotional or spiritual dimension of such a relationship.
Whatever the perfect marker–MSM or male intimacy–the behavior is clearly not an ‘identity’ in Bhutan. It’s not a political cause. It is not a religious ‘sin’ or a social dishonor or an emotional diagnosis. It is a matter of mystery and discretion due in no small part to the fact that the general population knows virtually nothing about same-sex sensuality—including those who engage in it. (In the 20th century that is changing,)
Absent as well is any tradition of homophobic rhetoric from lawmakers, educators, clergy or morality police. I am reminded, in an oblique way, of the scientists who first walked among the penguins and sea lions in Antarctica; the animals expressed no fear of humans because they didn’t know what they were. The encounter was peaceful and curious. It may fairly be argued that homoerotic behavior in Bhutan is equally peaceful, innocent and mostly free of shame, even as it is kept hidden.
Interviews with three Gay Men who have lived in Bhutan
This part of the story about gay Bhutan is based on communications with three ‘insiders’ who have lived in Bhutan for extended periods of time, although two of them are American citizens. One is an Americian cultural researcher, Regis, another is an American Buddhist monk from California, Tenzin and the third is a native of Bhutan, Chong, a discontent man whom I described above.
The two Americans, Tenzin and Regis, speak of Bhutan in loving and appreciative terms. Chong is critical and skeptical. However, his (non-political) gay views are included here since they are similar to the other two commentators.
Interview (1): Tenzin
The first response to my previous gay Bhutan story was from Tenzin, a American from California who is a Tibetan Buddhist.
He initially wrote: “I have lived in Bhutan and had a Bhutanese boyfriend. On my first trip to Bhutan my tour guide ask me to have sex with him though he told me he had a wife. I found that sexual attitudes among Bhutanese men were more leaning towards bisexuality.
“I’m a monk now, only looking for friendship with other guys with similar (non-sexual) interests. Why I’m looking for such friends is because a former boyfriend I had in California was Tibetan. He is one the most amazing people I have known in my life so that’s what brings me here.
“I’m not looking for boyfriend. I like being able to feel comfortable with friends when I talk and not have the ‘oh you’re a gay celibate and you had a partner!’ surprised reaction.
“I still consider myself as gay since, if I were in a relationship, it would be with a man.
I wanted to point out due to my and others (Buddhist University Bangkok, Thailand) extensive search of the Dharma that the Buddha never spoke against being gay. And I’m not here to try to teach Buddhism to anyone.
Yours in the Triple Gem,
In a second message, Tenzin wrote:
“To be quite frank about my experience with my tour guide he really surprised me by his asking me for sex. After his shower in the early hours of the morning he stood erect wearing his chuba (Bhutanese national dress).
“But he also mentioned when he and his wife were having some problems he liked to have sex with men sometimes. As I was a guest in his country and also I had met his wife I did not feel comfortable having sex with him .
“I did find him attractive and maybe he picked up on that. As far as the norm for Bhutan this is not the first sexual experience I have had with a Bhutanese man. Some do tend towards being bisexual rather than gay, and if gay they are very discreet due to that not being very common. You would find that a small majority of Bhutanese men would enjoy having oral sex being the receiver or having anal sex being the top with another guy.
“Regarding the Royalty of Bhutan I am biased since I’m a personal friend of the Royal Family although not including the King. I met one of the Queens who had studied in the US and was very kind to me.
“I believe the King and the Royal Family love and care for the people of Bhutan and they personally oversee many projects to help the people such as hospitals, schools and hydro power plants and have a close trade and working relationship with Denmark and Japan.
“They are careful with foreign guests as they should be being between India and China, either of which would like to have Bhutan as part of their own lands.
“The King whom I did talk with said a constitutional monarchy is due to the support of the Bhutanese.
“He is trying to preserve the natural beauty and at the same time bring Bhutan into a more modern and stable economic situation. Not an easy task.
“With regards to the long term Nepalese and other refugees the King whom I spoke with on the issue has tried very kindly to help and extended every means of aid available even offering citizenship to some.
“However, before his abdication, there was a small and violent Nepalese gurka minority of refugees who wished to see the King forcefully unseated but this was not tolerated. They were told to leave the Kingdom but they simply refused to go and continued to cause numerous problems and drain the resources of Bhutan. Some of them also illegally logged and smuggled which degrades the natural beauty.
“Another problem in this refugee issue is the Nepalese in Sikkim a former Buddhist Kingdom, now part of India. There is a systematic policy on the part of the Indian Government, through the Nepalese Governor, to flood Sikkim with Nepalese foreign nationals reducing local Sikkimese people to a minority, as is being done in Tibet with Han Chinese… In honesty and with respect I make these comments.”
Interview (2): Regis
Regis is a researcher for an international cultural foundation (based in USA) and has traveled and lived in Asia for extended periods of time.
GlobalGayz: Please give an overview of homosexuality in Bhutan and how it fits—or not—with the larger social fabric.
Regis: I am gay; I have lived and worked in Bhutan, and know that homosexuality is practiced there, as everywhere. Cautiously, I say that it is not uncommon in the monastic community (one of the last bastions of institutionalized monastic homosexuality, I might add) but everyone knows and understands this, including the families of boys who willingly, happily, send one of their sons to become monks.
I tell you this with some reluctance since it is too easy for outsiders to read these words and draw inaccurate conclusions. Sexuality is so much ‘softer’ here, like water, not fire, not ice. Perhaps another way to say all this is that the soft-core practices between monks is an open secret in Bhutanese society but due to the clandestine lives of the monks, very little about it is actually known, let alone spoken.
Humorously, I have heard more than once that women want to sleep with monks and actively pursue them for these reasons: they wear robes with no underwear so their cocks are bigger; their skin is soft like a woman’s from leading a monastic not a farmer’s life; they are strong and athletic from their rituals and dancing and so can ‘perform’ for hours; and they are virgins. Ha!
Not all monks practice male sex to be sure; I believe most are celibate. Occasions of inter-crural (between legs) sex with younger men–some assigned to higher ranking monks–is more about getting one’s rocks off than being gay. As a whole life system, it makes a lot of sense and helps keep monks monks rather than leaving to get sexual relief.
Many of the monks who do have boys would more willingly sleep with women, again demolishing our notions of sexual identity as set in stone. I allow the fluidity to teach me rather than impose my own cultural mores to these ancient practices. I do NOT know exactly what the monastic sexual behaviors are but I see it being revealed to me very carefully the more I live and work here–mostly believing that I am worthy of that most private information. The sexual attitudes of the Bhutanese are among the most open of any country I have seen in the world. (I have been to 53 countries.)
They are not offended or ignorant about sex. They just don’t make as big a deal about it as most western countries do. The ‘gay construct” of compete identity and exclusivity is a modern western notion, and there are many examples of male love throughout history and the world that do not conform to the modern western–mostly American–notion of ‘gay’.
I have had several relationships with Bhutanese men, open, fun, willing, not ones that reject the opposite sex or alter their fundamental notion of themselves. The upshot is rather that one of their kids would probably have my name as part of theirs.
Another example of this laissez-faire attitude here (as I call it), is that I recently learned of a gay youth in a border town who “loves sex” and apparently had has quite a lot, including with officials and high ranking monks, although some of them have insisted they travel into India for the liaison. Don’t know why. The salient fact to share here is that everyone in this boy’s village knows he likes boys; and he freely tells anyone (apparently his line is ” once you try a boy you will never go back to your wife” ) and no one is unduly shocked or morally outraged at his behavior although it certainly is not the norm.
At another level, the king’s uncle was Regent of Bhutan and ran the country for years after the death of the 3rd King. He hunts and fishes and loves young men. Everyone in the country knows it. He is considered by many to be ‘the happiest man in Bhutan’.
GG: What is the legal status of homosexuality in Bhutan and is it actively punished?
Regis: I have asked several top government officials about the criminality of homosexuality and one and all they have said they have never heard such a thing, nor have they heard of anyone homosexual being put into a prison. “No big deal” is their universal reaction.
Two officers in command of two of the largest districts ( these would be equivalent to top police enforcement in a US State) have told me they have never put anyone in jail for being gay nor have they heard of it. They added rape or forced sex or attempted rape or forced sex would get jail time no matter the orientation.
Most of the officials and others I have asked about the legality of homosexuality in Bhutan look at me with perplexed expressions: no one cares! why bring it up? They almost all say ” Everyone knows the monks practice homosexuality and sometimes add that the King’s uncle was homosexual.
There is a court system here with judges, albeit without lawyers. Everyone can make their case to whatever government authority they want. The humblest peasant can petition the King and get an audience. I know several people who work for me that have had audiences with the King. No one can indiscriminately be thrown into jail with no recourse for a defense. Anyone petitioning him as he drives by will be met by a officer who will then set a date for an audience.
GG: What does Buddhism say about homosexuality?
Regis: Gay is not a word here. I think there is a practical parallel in Buddhism; some scholars may tell you Buddhism prohibits homosexuality (I don’t agree ) but no Buddhist would ever make a stink about it like Christians and Muslims do. (See Buddhism and Homosexuality on this site.)
GG: What is your view of the monarchy system? (asked before the abdication)
Regis: This King, who has introduced democracy, travels the country advocating and teaching it. He has recently announced his abdication, and it is the population that wants him to stay as monarch.
FYI, ‘Gross National Happiness’ is not a nickname; it is formal government policy, well laid out and constantly implemented. Bhutan is a place with some of the most open sexual mores in the world. Any subject can be openly debated here. The King does not control the Newspaper; anyone can write anything. It is a privately owned newspaper. Human rights are regularly debated. Will and Grace aired here and Glee is popular. The Bhutanese are intelligent and proud.
Most of the pollution of the modern world from capitalism to the politicization of sexuality is not tainting life here. It will, eventually, and what sexual openness and fun loving attitudes the Bhutanese have long held, will fall prey to western morality and politics.
GG: So you agree that the western labels of sexuality are invalid in Bhutan?
Regis: Gay, homo/bi are not correct terms for most places on the planet when discussing the truth about sexual practice and sexual identity. ‘Male love’ makes more sense to me. ‘Homosexual’ as a self-moniker is used by no one in Bhutan, nor is ‘bi-sexual’. People can and do have a variety of sexual experiences without labeling themselves. I think it’s not easy for the western mind to grasp since we like our categories. It is tricky, as you say. It takes a while of living—and loving–here to let go.
But gays are perfectly welcomed here, and as long as no assault or rape is committed, no one in Bhutan will throw a gay visitor in jail. There are at least 3 tour operators catering exclusively to gays, and the gay couples I have seen here are welcomed. No biggie. Maybe we have something to learn from the Bhutanese comfort and fun attitudes toward sex.
GG: I’m sure you have something to say about the refugee situation.
Regis: In a nutshell regarding the citizenship issue: Bhutan’s monarchy was established in 1907 after 400 yrs of Theocracy, and more than 100 years of constant bloody civil war. At last there was order and peace: the very fundamental of human rights. Britain, once an adversary, became Bhutan’s staunch ally. (Thus, it made some sense to adopt their penal code, including anti-gay statutes.)
In 1958, Bhutan first defined citizenship including a 10-year land ownership clause for anyone of non-Bhutanese origin. Remember this is a mere 50 years into a new government: think USA 1826.
1958 was marked by big trouble in the Himalayas as everyone knew China would soon invade Tibet, which it did in 1959. Bhutan saw massive immigration problems looming. It is the tiniest possible buffer between two enormous countries. Tibetans made some inroads here after the invasion, but mostly they went to India where they could rebuild and were invited (where the Dalai Lama is now), and some went into Nepal. There are some Tibetans in Bhutan, mostly those who already lived in geographic regions linking Bhutan and Tibet for centuries even before Bhutan was Bhutan (pre 1616)
The first census was taken in 1988, during the 4th King’s reign. The citizenship law resorted to a 1958 standard of proof primarily because there had been a huge influx of Indians and Nepalese in the interim which threatened Bhutan’s identity and ability to manage.
Without a strict citizenship law, Bhutan today would be overrun with refugees and separatists from Nepal, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. It was only in December 2005 that the Bhutanese routed out the Assamese separatists who were using their southern mountains as terrorist training camps. The Nepalese Maoists were doing the same thing, and to compare, look at the complete Maoist mess that happened in Nepal.
So, while I can sympathize with those more-than 100,000 non-Bhutanese who moved into Bhutan since 1958 and owned land for more than 10 years, they nevertheless did not comply with the law which was written in 1958 and which was the marking date.
You must understand how tiny Bhutan is. It is a miracle it exists as a separate state at all while every other kingdom from Ladakh to Sikkim to mighty Tibet was be taken over by China. The citizenship law is a matter of cultural and political survival, something none of the other kingdoms could achieve. I understand why Bhutan is so strict about its borders, its ethnicity and its statehood. Everything around Bhutan is a mess.
Human Rights Watch confirms no one in Bhutan has lost life due to human rights violations. No one can remember anyone being executed since the perpetrators of the assassination of the Prime Minister decades ago. Bhutan is struggling to develop and raise the standard of living, education and joining the comity of nations – it is not interested to persecute homosexuals. It is very busy surviving. Some of the human rights stuff I read made sense in western terms but had no grasp of what is in many ways a medieval society.
GG: Any closing thoughts?
Regis: On a final note: life can be quite hard here: rural, farm work, much of it not modernized; there are only recently modern conveniences in few places that includes electricity and phones. Sex is not as present and on the mind as in the west. Life doesn’t afford that. One is happy to be fed and have a nice place to sleep after much work. Devout Buddhism (passivism) characterizes Bhutan. Society is not sexualized like America. It is different.
We have to learn about what we lost, like our ancient art forms—we Americans lost ours. Here they still have theirs. I am always learning more of the nature of their traditional art. Maybe we can learn more about what the nature of sexuality really is. Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom; it is as benign as Buddhism is.
Interview (3): Chong
Chong (not his real name; mentioned above) is a fifty year-old gay Bhutanese medical professional who works for a non-governmental organization (NGO). He originates from a very rural mountain village where virtually nothing is known about homosexuality. He has been married for thirty years and has two children. His own self-discovery occurred during his boarding school years in India where he later studied pre-med courses and eventually chose pharmacology.
Since returning to Bhutan, about 25 years ago, he has remained in the closet to his family and professional associates. He works for an NGO based in Europe that offers health care to rural residents. He agreed to share his thoughts and experiences here providing his identity was kept well disguised. His view of Bhutanese attitudes toward homosexuality is more negative than the other commentators here. (Full interview: Click Here (Report #1)
GlobalGayz: Please give an overview of the LGBT ‘scene’ in Bhutan?
Chong: Yes I can give you all the details about homosexuality in this country, since the literacy rate is just 25% [not accurate: it’s 60%] out of 800,000 population, many have never heard of gay sex and homosexuality at all. As for gay tolerance, this is not known. Many don’t know anything. But men can hold hands, sleep in the same bed with another even in presence of parents or relatives and friends, yet many don’t know that gay sex exist at all. Married men can sleep together in same bed with other married or single men!
GG: What would they say if they found out you are gay? Would they throw you out of the family?
Chong: If some modern and new generation people know that we are gay, then that is the worst part; we will be cast out from the society. My parents are farmers and never heard of homosexuality at all, at least its existence in open society. I think here most of the gay men are married to cover it up. It is unfortunate but it is the only way to survive. If you are caught as homosexual, perhaps the government will put you in jail for life and society will outcast you. But as I said, a man can hold man’s hand and a man can sleep with other man in the same bed but they don’t think for sex.
GG: Is this secrecy ‘homophobia’ or something else? What is the reason for this? Religion? Legal laws? Social tradition?
Chong: It is not so actually ‘homophobia’ but mostly ignorance and not knowing what this strange sex is. In the small villages they don’t think about it and so do not know how to accept something so strange. But if they find it out they do not like it because it is not normal for them. In the bigger cities like the capitol more people know about gay sex but the government has said it is a crime. A person can go to the jail so people are afraid of that too. (This is soon to change.)
GG: Is there is an underground gay community who know each other?
Chong: No, there are no gay men who have sex in any underground; 98% of gay men are married. I am married too since over 30 years. If you are not married society will question you and ask you if you are abnormal man. Lots of pressure really, so all men marry and it’s mandatory due to social pressure.
GG: Do you know other gays in Bhutan?
Chong: I don’t know a single gay man in Bhutan personally nor anyone do I dare to ask and get to know one for so many reasons like being caught or known and outcast from office work, family and society. I am sure there are gays. They are married and have kids. I guess they might be finding sex across in India which is on our immediate border.
About Bhutan, as I told, you, only the new generation who study outside Bhutan are exposed and have heard of homosexuality. So they are very few overall. You can see the gay Bhutan web site where there are not any gay men who have put ads, except me, since many even don’t know that gay sites exist. I am sure that there are few gay men who are influenced by western tourists and must have had sex.
GG: Where did you go to college for your professional education?
Chong: I did study in India for many years and India has many gay meeting places in all cities. I also learned that one has to be very careful to have sex in India in metro cities. At times gay men acts as middle men with the cops to make money; you see the danger and irony of Indian gays!! I have been to all cities in India though. The cops often raid the secluded run gay bars also. (Homosexuality has been decriminalized in India 2019)
GG: How did you discover your homosexuality?
Chong: I discovered my homosexuality when I was in boarding school in India and one senior assistant slept and kissed me and looked after me like his very own brother. We kissed and slept many times together. I was 14 yrs when he was 24 years. I knew then I don’t like women or girls.
GG: Were you nervous when you discovered you were gay? Can you say more about coming out to yourself and where you were and what your early experience was?
Chong: The first ‘real’ gay experience was with a British guy who was my English teacher who was probably bisexual since he had his wife and kids. We met in Darjeeling St. Paul’s School, the best mission school in India, where I got converted into Christianity. Please understand that converting to another religion is punishable by the law of the land in Bhutan! (This point is disputed by others-ed.)
My teacher was 50 years when I was a teen and in fact I never knew that I had this man-to-man instinct until this teacher allured me with his affection and private tuition class in his home when his wife was away to London. Once at night he asked me sleep in his bedroom when suddenly he undressed me and starting kissing and cuddling. I was shocked and reluctant in the beginning but after a while I got aroused. I was just 19 years and full of virility. Then he was oral with me and kissed me.
Finally I also started kissing and cuddling him. We were lovers for 10 years during my stay in school and college until he went back to England in Birmingham. He died some years ago now.
Another interview (4) with a young gay Bhutanese man can be seen at GlobalGayz News & Reports (#6).
(Note about photos in this story: these images were taken randomly from the Internet and no presumption is offered regarding the sexual orientation of the persons pictured.)
Gay Bhutan News & Reports 2003 to present