By Tenzin Sangmo
DHARAMSHALA, June 10: Bhutan’s lower house of the parliament, the National Assembly, voted overwhelmingly late Friday to decriminalize homosexuality, becoming the latest South Asian nation to move toward adopting a more accepting attitude toward same-sex relationships.
38 votes out of a total of 44 members of the lower house voted in favour of repealing the two sections of the country’s 2004 criminal code that classify “unnatural sex” as illegal.
According to section 213 of the Bhutan Penal Code 2004: “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,” while section 214 states: “The offence of unnatural sex shall be a petty misdemeanour.”
Bhutan’s Finance Minister Namgay Tshering who proposed repealing the legislative provisions against homosexuality, said, “My primary reason is that this section is there since 2004 but it has become so redundant and has never been enforced. It is also an eyesore for international human rights bodies.”
The bill will be put before the National Assembly’s upper house in six months’ time during its winter session for ratification before it is sent to the king for royal approval.
The minister expressed optimism that the upper house of parliament would back the lower house’s decision, noting, “There is a high degree of acceptability of the LGBT community in our society.”
The lower house’s decision was lauded by human rights organizations and activists as an important step forward by Bhutan toward helping to ensure social equality.
“Taking steps to end the criminalization of same-sex relationships is a welcome and progressive step by Bhutan,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch to Al Jazeera.
Tashi Tsheten, director of the LGBT+ activist group Rainbow Bhutan, expressing happiness at their rights being discussed in parliament, told Al Jazeera that while transgendered people were generally accepted by Bhutanese society, especially in rural areas, discrimination still exists, particularly in schools.
“Most LGBT youths drop out of school early.”
Renowned for its “Gross National Happiness” approach to economic development, which prioritizes societal happiness, almost 75 per cent of Bhutan’s population of some 750,000 people identify as Buddhists who mostly follow the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma schools of Vajrayana Buddhism.