It is true that the LGBTQ community does enjoy a tolerant society in Bhutan. It is however wrong to think they should be thankful for being tolerated. And you need not pat yourself on the shoulder for being tolerant too. “You should not be tolerating this. You should be respecting this. Tolerance is not a good thing. If you’re tolerating this, it means you think there is something wrong. You have to go beyond that,” says Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche on our attitudes towards the LGBTQ community. Ever since I have heard Rinpoche say this, I have stopped taking pride in us being tolerant.
There are many of us who believe that having a non-straight sexual orientation is abnormal. A lot of us have not heard of people being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer; but not hearing about it does not make the LGBTQ community an aberrant. Buddhism does not condemn the queer. Many enlightened teachers have explained this eloquently including Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche himself. Borrowing and building on the cheese allegory shared by Rinpoche at a public teaching in Thimphu, last year, when he spoke for the first time about the LGBTQ community: Just because we have never heard of Muenster- a type of cheese, it does not become a non-cheese. Rinpoche shared, “Some people like cottage cheese, and some like Swiss cheese,” and it is as simple as this. My queer friends don’t know why they are the way they are, they just are! I do not know why I am straight, I just am.
Actually, I do know. It is in our DNA. It is biological. Being gay, and being queer are not cultural choices. People are not being gay to be modishly Western. If our sexual orientations were really about choosing Option A- Gay one day, and Option B- Straight the next, why would the LGBTQ community stubbornly endure all the hatred, ostracisation, and other violence inflicted upon their beings? It is not for our entertainment. The last thing the community wants to be is a spectacle. Here’s perspective from a gay friend of mine: “Why would I suffer by choice? If I could just stop being gay, I would. But I can’t. I don’t willingly choose to suffer. I have to live with this. You do not have to live with being straight.”
Not a single person from the LGBTQ community has been arrested till date. But they live in prisons: Prisons of doubt, fear, self-loathing, shame, and hopelessness. Prisons built by society. Prisons built by you and I.
Our Constitution is inclusive. I have great respect for Clause 15 of Article 7 as it decrees: All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to equal and effective protection of the law and shall not be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status. But there is a small problem. Sex refers to biological and physical attributes. I hope even if it is semantically incorrect, that sex is being used interchangeably with gender. Otherwise, a transgender will never receive equal treatment in society if we limit ourselves to the binaries of male and female attributes. An intersex person (with both male and female reproductive organs) will never find a place in our society because the language describing life in Bhutan does not recognise them. Gender cannot be assigned to you at birth like your sex. Gender is the manner in which you express yourself in your lifelong interactions within societal and cultural structures. But our Penal Code inhibits such an expression. It criminalises homosexuality. The Marriage Act of Bhutan recognizes marriage between two genders only: Male and Female. But one can hope.
Of the 9,000 plus members of the LGBTQ community in Bhutan, about ten are visible in society. Where are the rest? Why are they invisible? Only when the questions cease will I stop making an issue of what many of you dismiss as a non-issue.