A joint sitting of both houses of the Bhutanese parliament on Thursday approved a bill to legalize gay sex, making the Himalayan kingdom the latest Asian nation to take steps toward easing restrictions on same-sex relationships.
Sections 213 and 214 of the Bhutanese penal code had criminalized “unnatural sex,” widely interpreted as homosexuality.
Bhutanese lawmaker Ugyen Wangdi, vice chairperson of a joint panel considering the changes, said that 63 out of 69 members of both houses of parliament voted in favor of amending the code to scrap the provision.
Six members were absent.
“Homosexuality will not be considered as unnatural sex now,” Wangdi said by telephone from the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu, without giving details.
The changes still need to be approved by the King of Bhutan to become a law.
Rights advocate Tashi Tsheten said that he was “thrilled and really happy” over the parliamentary move, calling it a “victory” for the LGBTQ community.
“I haven’t stopped smiling since yesterday. I am eagerly awaiting his majesty’s assent,” said Tsheten, director of the LGBTQ group Rainbow Bhutan.
“I think the bill being passed on [International] Human Rights Day itself is a momentous day for everyone in Bhutan,” he said.
“I believe everyone who has stood up for the LGBTQ community in Bhutan is going to celebrate today, as this is our victory,” he added.
The move by the mostly Buddhist nation of 800,000 people comes after other Asian countries have relaxed restrictions on the rights of LGBTQ people.
Jessica Stern, executive director of the advocacy group OutRight Action International, said in a statement that the vote in Bhutan was a “huge achievement.”
“For too long, the human rights of LGBTQ people have not been recognized. Today, Bhutan chose to tell a different story and create a different future for itself,” Stern said.
“It is both a testament to the perseverance of the LGBTQ movement in Bhutan, and a source of inspiration for LGBTQ movements across the continent and the world where such laws are still in effect,” she said.
India removed a centuries-old colonial prohibition on gay sex in 2018, triggering celebration across the country.
In Nepal, authorities are to count LGBTQ people for the first time in a national census next year to help sexual minorities gain better access to education and healthcare.
Bhutan is famous for its “gross national happiness” index as an alternative to GDP to indicate real economic progress.
Additional reporting by AP
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