MAIN STORY: The first International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) was observed last week, a welcoming news for the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender (LGBT) community in the country.
The Equality Flag, which is covered in rainbow colours, was raised at the UN House to mark the day.
This is a milestone achieved by the LGBT community members who came a long way from individual struggles.
It was in 2008 when the first transgender, from a male to female, came out in public. Being a ‘gay’ or ‘transgender’ was something unheard of among the general population then.
But coming out in a public was not everyone’s cup of tea.
Pema Dorji, 23, realised that he was different from a very young age. Instead of rushing outside to play like other boys, he would stay back in the class in the company of his female friends.
With a pain masked behind the smiling face, Pema Dorji recalls the tough student life he endured when he realised that he was someone ‘different’.
“The realisation of being someone different from other students hit me after I started my studies. I felt the difference after mingling with both the genders,” Pema Dorji said. “I even used the girl’s toilet, but this didn’t last long after the boys started teasing and taunting me. I started developing a fear of visiting toilet or going outside the class after that. Gradually, I started losing my self-confidence and identity.”
When Pema was in Class I, aged six, people started calling him names like ‘chhakha’ and made fun of him at school. “At that stage, I didn’t understand what those words meant,” Pema Dorji said. He added: “Eventually, when I reached higher classes, teasing became worse because people forgot my real name and called me with these names instead. The name-calling and teasing started to affect my siblings who studied in the same school. From such a young age, I was constantly reminded that I didn’t belong. I started excluding myself from other people. The situation worsened as I became older.”
Pema Dorji can clearly recall the confusing stage when he started liking a boy at the age of 11. “This confused me because girls liked boys and vice versa. It really disturbed me to the point that I couldn’t sleep for a few days. I didn’t know why I felt that way.”
The school days were the most difficult part of Pema’s life because at that stage, one is young and constantly looking for answers.
“In this vulnerable stage, most people tend to either commit suicide or indulge in alcohol and drugs because that is the only way to forget everything. I also tried to commit suicide three times because it was the only way out,” said Pema. “I started questioning everything because the way I see myself was somehow not right for other people except for my family and friends. Everyone tried to change me and advise me to be someone who I am not.”
When Pema Dorji was growing up, there were no information about gender identity and sexuality. For most part of his life, he thought he was girl.
“People told me that I’m a girl and I believed it. It was only when I read in the Internet that I found people like me were known as gay. I started to accept myself after that and I learnt about other spectrums in a LGBT community,” Pema Dorji said. “I don’t think I will be completely healed from my childhood experience, but I’m in a much better place today.”
Not everyone had the same childhood experience. For Tenzin Gyeltshen, 23, though he liked a boy when he was studying, nobody knew that about him since he has a masculine look.
There was a boy in my school who looked and behaved in a feminine way and he used to be tormented and teased a lot. This scared me and I wasn’t able to tell anyone who I really was, Tenzin Gyeltshen said.
“I was terrified that others might treat me the same way. I started hating myself because I wasn’t able to fit in the society. I started to feel like I was becoming a shame to my parents,” Tenzin Gyeltshen said. “It’s high time that a subject on gender identity and sexuality be included in the school curriculum because it will not only help students like us, but also let others understand the difference.”
Today, Pema Dorji and Tenzin Gyeltshen are the members of LGBT community. Although it’s an informal network, the members of the community provide the information and platform for people seeking counselling and advice.
Most of the community members have accepted themselves and have a positive mind-set.
“When someone teases or criticises me for my gender identity today, I feel compassionate because of their lack of understanding on this subject,” Tenzin Gyeltshen said.
Pema said: “Comparing with other countries, the LGBT community here are in a much better place. But that doesn’t mean we should tolerate any form of discrimination and stigmatisation. We deserve equal love and affection like all others.”
Coordinator of LGBT community, Dechen Seldon, a transgender, said the situation is much better for the LGBT community today. “Currently, we are focusing on providing advocacy and basic information about the LGBT community because we realised that there were hardly any information out there. We are not looking for ‘acceptance’ from the society but ‘understanding’ about who we are and why we are this way.”
Being a Gross National Happiness and Buddhist country, the LGBT community already has the acceptance needed from the society but the discrimination and stigma can still be felt because of the lack of information and understanding.
“There is a misconception that LGBT people are this way because they enjoy or feel entertained by it,” Dechen Seldon said. “If we convey the right information, people understand and do not discriminate or stigmatise us.”
Despite these challenges, there are opportunities for the LGBT community, Dechen Seldon added. “There are programmes supported by government and international agencies and non-profit organisations. We can strengthen networks to develop the community as an organisation and improve access to services for LGBT such as counselling, sexual health and protection.”
There are about 20 active LGBT community members in Thimphu.