Bhutan's trailblazing beauty queen speaks up for LGBTQ community

Bhutan's trailblazing beauty queen speaks up for LGBTQ community

Tashi Choden, who was crowned Miss Bhutan 2022 last month, came out last year on International Pride Day.
Tashi Choden, who was crowned Miss Bhutan 2022 last month, came out last year on International Pride Day.

THIMPU, Bhutan: Tashi Choden will not only be the first contestant to represent Bhutan at the Miss Universe competition -- she is also the Himalayan country's only openly gay public figure.

The remote country is famed for its philosophy of "Gross National Happiness", in which it prioritises citizens' well-being on par with economic growth.

But up until February 2021, gay sex was defined in the penal code as "sexual conduct against the laws of nature", and branded illegal in the Buddhist country.

That makes Choden's crowning last month as Miss Bhutan 2022 a "huge deal" for the country of almost 800,000 people and its LGBTQ community, she said.

"I'm not only speaking for the Bhutanese community but I'm speaking for the minority community on a platform like the Miss Universe pageant," she told AFP.

"I can be their voice."

The 23-year-old -- who lost both her parents by the time she was 14 -- said she came out last June, on International Pride Day, after "a lot of research and introspection".

It initially prompted a "very strong reaction" from her conservative and religious family members, but Choden said it was important for them to be part of her coming-out process.

"First and foremost, their acceptance matters to me," she said. "After a while, they were very accepting of it. And I'm very grateful for that because a lot of people are not that fortunate to have that acceptance.

"As long as they know I'll do well in life, that I can stand on my own feet, that I can be an independent woman -- I think my sexuality doesn't really matter to them."

While she received "some negative reactions" online after she was crowned and chosen to represent Bhutan in Miss Universe, her win appeared to garner support from inside the country and abroad.

Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering -- who famously still practises as a doctor on weekends as a "de-stresser" -- personally congratulated her and wished her success.

- Paving its own way -

Bhutan has always ploughed its own furrow, benchmarking itself not just on economic growth but also on maintaining the ecological health of its picturesque valleys and snow-capped mountains.

The country is carbon negative and its constitution mandates that 60% of Bhutan remains forested.

It also eschews the global tourism model, instead levying a hefty $200 a day "sustainable development fee" for foreign tourists to enter -- a fund used to offset their carbon footprint.

Television was only allowed in 1999, archery is a national craze and phalluses painted on houses to ward off evil are common.

Members of the LGBTQ community have reported instances of discrimination and social stigma, which keeps many in the closet.

But the kingdom's decriminalisation of gay sex in 2021 signalled growing openness and acceptance, said Rinzin Galley, a gender-fluid beautician.

"With the decriminalisation... I feel more comfortable in public than before," Galley told AFP.

"I like putting on make-up and going out, and it's not a normal thing for a guy to come out with make-up."

Several transgender women have had their names and gender changed on their citizenship identity cards and the LGBTQ community is slowly becoming more visible.

Community-based organisations -- like Queer Voices of Bhutan and Pride Bhutan -- and an NGO called Lhak-sam have also provided support through advocacy.

And now, with Choden representing Bhutan on the Miss Universe stage -- watched by millions worldwide -- many are hopeful about the future of the country's queer youth.

"Having a queer woman become Miss Bhutan enables the rest of the queer community, especially queer youth, to aim for bigger goals in their lives," Regita Gurung, a young bisexual woman, told AFP.

"This representation has paved the path for the rest of us to be confident about who we are on public platforms."

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