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Gay life in Bhutan: what’s it like for the LGBTQ+ community in Bhutan?

Stefan Arestis
Gay life in Bhutan: what’s it like for the LGBTQ+ community in Bhutan?

Have you ever wondered what gay life in Bhutan is like? We spoke to a couple of inspiring LGBTQ people in Thimphu who gave us their unique perspective on what it's like growing up queer in modern-day Bhutan.

“What's your most memorable travel experience?”… is a question we often get asked. Well, our gay trip to Bhutan in early 2024 is certainly up there!

Bhutan blew our minds in every way. No seriously: the national dish is a spicy chili cheese stew. ALL food in Bhutan is so heavily laden with chili that it blew our minds (and taste buds!)

Gay couple travel book Nomadic Boys Out in the World

Beyond the sapid food and pungent flavors, Bhutan retains a special in our hearts. Bhutanese culture and modern-day traditions date back centuries – it felt like we'd stepped into a time machine and gone back in time to a grand Medieval age. Men walk the streets dressed in beautiful robes (called ‘gho'), and intricate ancient Tibetan art dominates the landscape. Even the airport felt like we were in a museum, crafted with such care that everywhere you look you're wowed by the details and colors.

Bhutan only started to open up to tourism in 1974 and still restricts the number of people allowed to enter as a way of preserving its infrastructure, culture, and environment. This hold to its past also meant that LGBTQ rights remained tightly underdeveloped, with an anti-gay law in place…until recently.

In February 2021, the Bhutanese government turned this around by dropping this archaic law, paving the way for the LGBTQ community of Bhutan to come proudly sashaying out of the closet. Whilst Bhutan is not a trailblazer when it comes to the most gay friendly countries in Asia, the LGBTQ rights in Bhutan are certainly on the path to positive change.

When we visited Bhutan in early 2024, Karma of Bhutan Mountain Holidays arranged for us to meet with a fabulous group of local LGBTQ activists to learn more about what it's like growing up gay in Bhutan and where they think LGBTQ rights are heading.

Here's what they had to say…


Usel Wangchuk LGBTQ activist in Bhutan.

Hi Usel, please introduce yourself:

Kuzu Zangpo La! I am Ugyen Wangchuk, born in 1994. I am from Mongar in Bhutan and work in an LGBTQ organization in Thimphu called Pride Bhutan. I am openly gay. My pronouns are He, They, and Them.

What was it like coming out to your friends and family?

I have not yet formally come out to my family, but deep down I think they must know. By contrast, I have come out to all my close friends and they accept me for who I am. I've never had a negative reaction from any of them. They've always been fully supportive.

What’s it like being an openly gay man in Bhutan?

Being an openly gay man in Bhutan can present both challenges and opportunities. For example, to avoid stigma and discrimination I often adjust my appearance and the way I behave so that I can ‘fit in' with society at large around me.

Whilst homosexuality is not explicitly criminalized in Bhutan, society remains conservative. I find that openly expressing my sexual orientation can be met with certain degrees of resistance! On the one hand, there are pockets of acceptance and support, particularly among younger generations and in urban areas. However, I face more stigma and discrimination from older members of society.

Gay couple wearing ghos at the Tiger's Nest Monastery in Bhutan.
A gho, my hustand, and a stunning monastery behind me. Life is complete 🙂

What is gay life like in Bhutan?

Gay life in Bhutan has a lot of experiences, cultures, and identities within the gay community. It's a combination of struggles, finding support, self-acceptance, and family acceptance.

For many gay individuals in Bhutan, their journey begins with self-discovery and coming to terms with their sexual orientation. This process can be filled with uncertainty, fear, and often, a sense of isolation, especially in a society like ours where the LGBTQ+ movement is quite new. However, as attitudes towards homosexuality continue to evolve globally, more and more LGBTQ people in Bhutan are finding the courage to embrace their authentic selves.

The internet has helped us a lot. For example, around 2013, Facebook grew massively in popularity in Bhutan, leading to increased visibility for our LGBTQ+ community through dedicated Facebook groups. In 2014, Rainbow Bhutan started with just 5 members, growing exponentially. Then in 2015, we started to see prominent figures coming out publicly like activist and physiotherapist Passang Dorji on national television.

Have you ever experienced any homophobia in Bhutan?

Thankfully not!

Whilst our society is conservative, our religion (Buddhism) is tolerant of everyone and does not (and has never) condemned homosexuality in ways that other religions do! Prominent members of our religion have even spoken about the importance of respecting gay people. For example, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche (a Tibetan/Bhutanese teacher, filmmaker, and writer) famously said in 2015:

“Your sexual orientation has nothing to do with understanding or not understanding the truth. You could be gay, you could be lesbian, you could be straight, we never know which one will get enlightened first… Tolerance is not a good thing. If you are tolerating this, it means that you think it's something wrong that you will tolerate. But you have to go beyond that – you have to respect.”

This is why I've always felt safe in Bhutan. At worst, I had some name-calling at school or kids not wanting to sit next to me in class.

The Buddhist lama Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche speaking positively about LGBTQ people.
Prominent Buddhist, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, speaking positively about LGBTQ people

What are the main gay friendly hangouts in Bhutan?

There are no official gay bars or clubs in Bhutan. Please remember that this is also partly down to the fact that we are a tiny nation with a population of less than 800,000. Nonetheless, there are a handful of gay friendly clubs in Thimphu such as Space 34 and Blackout Rooftop.

I also recommend the karaoke bars. We love to belt out a few tunes – both in English and Dzongkha (the official language of Bhutan).

Are there any LGBTQ organizations in Bhutan?

The main one is Pride Bhutan, which I work for. We are a member-based organization focusing on health and social development in our LGBTQ+ community. I specifically focus on networking and outreach activities, HIV Testing & Prevention, and community mobilization among gay and bisexual men in Bhutan.

The hardest part of my work with Pride Bhutan is reaching out to the hidden members of our community who are not ‘out' and therefore in the closet. They are the most vulnerable because they are too scared to seek out our services.

I also love and respect the work of Queer Voice of Bhutan who offer awareness and advocacy online programs.

Are there any famous out LGBTQ Bhutanese celebrities?

The most famous is Tashi Chombal who is openly lesbian and won Miss Universe Bhutan 2022. She is one of the first out gay people in Bhutan. And she is beautiful, in so many ways!

Others include LGBTQ activist and director of Rainbow Bhutan: Tashi Tsheten, activist and physiotherapist Passang Dorji who was the first person to come out as gay on national television in 2015, and Karma Dupchen, a civil engineer and LGBT activist, who created LGBT Bhutan in 2015 – Bhutan's first ever Facebook page.

Tashi Chombal is an open lesbian in Bhutan and winner of the Bhutan representative for the Miss Universe 2022 beauty pageant.
Tashi Chombal: Bhutan's representative for Miss Universe 2022. Photo: AFP

Are there any gay friendly events in Bhutan you recommend checking out?

There are no gay events in Bhutan but we celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOT) every May 17th.

We also celebrate Pride Month in June privately amongst our Pride Bhutan members. For example, in 2023, the Space 34 Club, organized a range of events during Pride Month where they invited us with free entry.

What’s the best way to connect with local gay guys in Bhutan?

As with most places in the world, Grindr is the best place to start to tap into the local LGBTQ community. It is the most commonly used gay app in Bhutan. For a more local experience, I also recommend checking out HeeSay (formerly Blued), which is like the Chinese Grindr and super popular in Bhutan.


Sonam Kelden prominent LGBTQ activist in Bhutan.

Hi Sonam, please introduce yourself:

Hi guys, my name is Sonam Kelden, born in 2005. I am originally from Thimphu where I live and work today.

What is life like for LGBTQ people in Bhutan?

Bhutanese society is conservative, but slowly attitudes are changing especially among the younger generation. By contrast, a lot of LGBTQ people in Bhutan struggle to come out to their families because that generation had no positive representations of LGBTQ people in the media. So most parents of that generation are now seeing openly gay people on the TV or the Internet for the first time, so it's a bit of a shock to them.

Have you heard of any homophobic incidents in Bhutan?

We are fortunate that Bhutanese people are tolerant at heart and not aggressive, which are core values of our country's main religion – Buddhism.

I have however heard a few tragic stories of some gay men taking their lives because of the pressure they were carrying being openly gay in society. One LGBTQ person I knew faced particular discomfort because they were made to feel uncomfortable using the male washroom and would be referred to as a ‘ladyboy' by his bullies!

Dinner with a local family at the Tshering Farmhouse in Punakha.
Having our own Bhutan festival!

What is your favorite festival in Bhutan?

We have so many festivals in Bhutan and I love every one! Every month something exciting happens. If I had to pick my favorite it would probably be ‘The Birth Anniversary of His Majesty the King‘. This is a unique 3-day festival celebrated annually on February 21-23 to mark the birth of our King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in 1980. I love his nickname: ‘Druk Gyalpo' (‘Dragon King') – a Druk appears on our flag and is our national symbol.

Another one I always look forward to is the Bhutan National Day Festival on December 17th. It commemorates the coronation of our first King, Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuk, in 1907. He ruled Bhutan from 1907-1926. I love it because we get to see the whole Royal Family in their full glory! We are very proud of our Royal Family in Bhutan and they are revered by everyone young and old.

What is your #1 Bhutan tourist attraction you recommend to travelers?

The Tiger's Nest Monastery, aka ‘Paro Taktsang'. It is a Vajrayana Himalayan Buddhist site located on the cliffside near Paro at an altitude of 10,236 feet (3,120 meters). It involves a 2-hour hike and no matter the time of year, it's always busy. It is popular with local pilgrims as well as travelers who come from far and wide to marvel at it.

No matter how many times I visit, I am blown away each time by this magnificent building. It's so beautiful, and the views surrounding it are just as impressive. One of my friends from the UK who visited was so enamored by the Tiger's Nest Monastery that he had it imprinted on his next birthday cake!

The Tiger's Nest Monastery featured on a birthday cake.
A unique birthday cake!

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Stefan Arestis

Hey everyone, I'm Stefan, the curly-haired Greek flavor behind the gay travel blog Nomadic Boys. Together with my other half, I have explored more than 90 countries across 5 continents. What I love most about traveling is discovering the local gay scene, making new friends, learning new cultures. I've written about LGBTQ travel in numerous online publications such as Gaycation Magazine, Gaycities, Gay Times and Pink News as well as for other non-gay-specific publications including Lonely Planet, The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post. Check my full bio here.

Bill Strong

Tuesday 9th of April 2024

30+ years ago I worked 2 summers w/ a Bhutanese grad student at a local university. He was one of the gentlest, kindest men I've ever known. He returned to Bhutan after finishing his degree and died mysteriously two years later. A friend who had worked with him full time for the 2 years eventually found that he had died of AIDS. yHe was well cared for. My American friend was so glad to connect with his family eventually. Such a sad loss for his society. I'm so glad to have known him.

Stefan Arestis

Tuesday 9th of April 2024

That's such a beautiful story but also very sad for your loss :(

Community Homestay Network

Sunday 31st of March 2024

Such a beautiful blog. Please visit us if you want to visit Nepal and have an authentic experience of rural life. We are Community Homestay Network.

Stefan Arestis

Sunday 31st of March 2024

Thanks - we LOVED Nepal :)