A global rights group has welcomed Bhutan’s move towards becoming the latest South Asian nation to decriminalise homosexuality.
The tiny Himalayan kingdom’s lower house of parliament voted overwhelmingly on Friday to repeal provisions that said “unnatural sex” is illegal.
The bill still needs to be passed by Bhutan parliament’s upper chamber before being sent for royal assent.
“Taking steps to end the criminalisation of same-sex relationships is a welcome and progressive step by Bhutan,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, told Reuters news agency on Sunday.
Bhutanese Finance Minister Namgay Tshering had proposed to repeal the penal code provisions, saying the law, despite never being used, had become “a stain” on the country’s reputation.
The minister said he was optimistic that the upper house in the nation of 750,000 people would back the lower house decision when it votes on Monday.
“A lot of us cried,” said Tashi Tsheten of Rainbow Bhutan that represents the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“We are a small and marginalised community and when our rights are discussed in parliament, it makes us extremely happy,” Tashi said.
He added that some ministers had been social workers with contacts in the LGBT community and Prime Minister Lotay Tshering was a surgeon.
“So we had lot of hopes in this government,” he said.
There is no annual Gay Pride rally or other such public display in Bhutan.
And while Tashi said there was a general acceptance of transgenders, especially in rural areas, they still faced much discrimination, particularly in schools.
“There are lots of barriers and our education system does not understand LGBT,” Tashi said, adding that most LGBT youths dropped out of school.
Bhutan’s move follows India, whose Supreme Court last year decriminalised homosexuality by declaring the related British-era laws unconstitutional.
Ganguly said the campaign for wider acceptance of gay rights should get more attention in South Asia, which is conservative and culturally and religiously diverse with major religions such as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.
Bhutan, famous for its “gross national happiness” index, that formulates government policy based on the perceived happiness of citizens rather than potential economic development, first held elections in 2008.
Before that, Bhutan was an absolute monarchy.
If the amendment to the penal code passes the upper house of the Asian nation’s parliament, 69 countries will remain worldwide where same-sex relations are illegal.