Overview:

It's may not be a perfect Shangri-la, but the tiny nation of Bhutan is trying hard to make its LGBTQ citizens' lives much happier.

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The tiny, landlocked Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan would hardly seem a likely haven for an LGBTQ revolution.

After all, this mountainous Asian country of fewer than a million inhabitants is far more famous for its arch-conservative Buddhist traditionalism and quaint “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) index than for groundbreaking relaxations of longstanding socio-sexual mores.

The GNH is a take on the Gross Domestic Product index, an economic-health measure globally used by nations to track the total market value of goods and services their economies produce.

Bhutan’s LGBTQ transformation, though perhaps quiet by historical revolutionary standards, has, in fact, been relentlessly progressing for some time now.

Bhutanese Karma Wangchuk, who has 36,000 followers on his Instagram account, Bhutan Street Fashion, told the Los Angeles Times in a recent interview that things have been changing in his country since the last decade of the last millennium.

 We’ve actually always been open about our bodies and the way we look in Bhutan,” he said. “But in the 1990s, MTV and U.S. pop culture introduced a new sense of right and wrong, a Victorian sense of morality, showing men as masculine and women looking feminine, completely eroding the ease we had with our bodies. … I want us to unlearn that side of globalization.

Previously, traditional male and female fashions in Bhutan were very similar— the gho, a long men’s robe, and the kira, a women’s full-length skirt, were commonly worn by much of the populace. Now some schools allow boys to wear a gho and girls a kira, he said.

“There was gender fluidity in fashion here long ago, but not as a social construct,” Wangchuk explained.

Over the ensuing years, LGBTQ Bhutanese have been influenced by the internet and other globally disseminated mass communications, which showed sex and gender choices beginning to be accepted in countries around the world. Bhutanese of those persuasions started organizing and, in the understated Buddhist way, clamoring for acceptance and social change. 

Then, in the 2000s, after a rash of pedophilia and sexually transmitted disease (STD) scandals rocked Bhutan, the nation’s Buddhist leaders pressed the government to instate sex-ed classes in monasteries by 2014, which they did that year.

Instruction on healthy masturbation and condom use were a key part of the curriculum aimed at young, supposedly celibate Buddhist monks. Many of them were from rural areas where sexuality wasn’t ever frankly discussed and was demonized, so many young monks were completely ignorant of sex, Bhutanese government officials lamented at the time.

Then, in late 2020, Bhutan’s lawmakers repealed a section of the country’s penal code that had long criminalized “sodomy or any other sexual conduct that is against the order of nature.”

Wrote the Los Angeles Times:

[G]rowing cellphone coverage and access to social media have allowed LGBTQ activists to mobilize, strengthen their platform and give a face to the community. That, combined with a Buddhist culture that respects diversity, has helped to fuel a quiet revolution in this quiet little kingdom.

Government acceptance of alternative sexuality and gender choices doesn’t appear to be the end of it. Lotay Tshering, Bhutan’s prime minister, said in September:

“Repealing these two articles is the biggest step we could have taken now. But it’s only the first step, obviously. Now, everything will be easier.”

When a reporter asked him if same-sex marriage was on the table, too, he repeated, “everything.”

Bhutan’s budding LGTBQ sexual progressiveness also reflects changes afoot in other Asian nations, although sex- and gender-choice tolerance has been most evident in recent years in more advanced, Western industrialized societies.

The Supreme Court of Bhutan’s neighbor India in 2018 “struck down one of the world’s oldest bans on gay sex,” and a year later Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage—a first for the continent—and Thailand seems to be leaning in that direction. Singapore decriminalized gay sex this year, but with a government caveat that marriage would be protected as a union only between a man and woman.

READ: The happiest nations on earth are strongly secular

The colonial birth of such anti-LGBTQ prejudices is not lost on Bhutanese officials. Bhutan’s prior prohibitions against gay sex were based on morality laws passed in 2004 mirroring India’s previous Christianity-infused penal code instituted by British colonialists more than two centuries earlier.

The sex-restrictive Bhutanese laws were passed four years before the country transitioned from monarchy to democracy, and then from LGBTQ bans to acceptance.

“Given the dominance of cultural systems which we received from Indian and Tibetan neighbors in the past, it was understandable why we had such a law,” said Bhutanese scholar Karma Phuntsho, author of The History of Bhutan.

At the end of the day, Bhutan is hardly as backward as stereotypical views of the tiny kingdom would have it.

In fact, in some ways (e.g., sex ed and LGBTQ tolerance) it’s more progressive and forward-looking than some of the world’s most advanced societies.

However, its image as a blissful Shangri-la may be a bit oversold.

The country’s Gross National Happiness movement has been so successful that it went internationally viral. Global surveys are now tracking happiness for every country, and “experts and dignitaries attend Gross National Happiness summits.” However, Bhutan, even though it rather invented the concept, is not No. 1 on the happiest-countries list.

A 2018 NPR piece—“The Birthplace Of ‘Gross National Happiness’ Is Growing A Bit Cynical”—reported that in the 2017 United Nations report ranking countries by happiness, Bhutan was 97th, compared to the US at 14th.

It turns out that Bhutan, like all countries, has significant social and economic challenges.

The hopeful news is that it is doing some fundamentally important things to help its people find more and more happiness moving forward.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...