Bhutan's trailblazing beauty queen speaks up for LGBTQ community
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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.
"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 percent 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.
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."
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.
"This representation has paved the path for the rest of us to be confident about who we are on public platforms."