“When I was backstage, I was so nervous. I was shaking. I thought people would throw chappals and tomatoes and pebbles at me. Then the host announced my name. I went upstairs and without greeting them , I turned to the wall. The spotlight hit me. And then while they were playing the song… I forgot everything else and focused on the song. I couldn’t see anyone. At the end, all I could hear was people asking for more.
Mariko remembers her first time coming out as a transgender woman at the Miss Tibet pageant in Dharamshala in 2015. She says it was one of the loudest concerts of McLeod Ganj. Born male, she went from being identified as a Buddhist monk to being a dancer and makeup artist.
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Even though Mariko has become an influencer and celebrity in her own right, her story seems to be an exception.
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So far, very few Tibetans living in India publicly identify as queer— a minority within an already minority community.
Dolma (name changed on purpose), a 24-year-old Tibetan, came out to just four of her friends in 2020; none were Tibetan. “Coming out wasn’t that glamorous or celebratory, especially when you’re in a community that doesn’t even talk about it,” she says.
Since her school days in Rampur, Shimla, she says she has always looked at girls in a different way than her friends. “I would never say it out loud, but I’ve never looked at women in the sense that they have bad hair,” just how they behave and how they are around people. The sensuality of women.
In Rampur, while living with her family and uncles who she says “ridicule and make fun of homosexuals”, she never questioned her sexuality. It never occurred to her that the way she viewed other women affected her sexual preference.
Apart from a few of her Indian friends, she has no plans to come out to her family or anyone in the world. Tibetan community.
Meanwhile, Mariko, who has over 30,000 followers on Instagram, says, “Society has changed over the years, now they come to me and tell me Hello.” His current popularity contrasts with his childhood experience at school in the Tibetan Children‘s Village of Suja. At the time, she was intimidated as she was the only boy with an all-girl circle of friends.
“They used insults, and I don’t even want to repeat them. Even thinking about it makes my blood boil,” she says. “The teachers were mean, they never supported me. Whenever they got bored, they sent me on stage and made me dance for no reason.
At one of her recent dinners with 30 to 40 people at the table, she says, “an educated person came up to me and said, ‘Do you have boobs’?”
But these instances remain in the past, as she lights a cigarette and greets people who greet her while walking on Bhagsu Road of Dharamshala. Even on social media, she says, she hardly gets any negative comments anymore.
In 2016, another Tibetan came out as gay on his YouTube channel on his 24th birthday. “I would curse God not only for making me like this, but also for putting me in a society where LGBT we never talk about it. But look at me, I’m breaking boundaries for you,” reads the description of her video. However, it has been a year and he is nowhere to be found on any social media platform, including the very YouTube channel he uploaded this video to.
Regarding coming out to the Tibetan community, Dolma adds that it is different from coming out to an Indian community. “As for the older Tibetan people, I’m not even thinking about coming out. The younger generation, I’m not generalizing, but they’re more focused on superficial things,” she says. Although they look modern and present themselves as having an understanding of ‘queerness’, says Dolma, “they don’t want to read about the pronouns that are being used around. And why it’s important to use pronouns with other people.
Some New Age Tibetans are still trying to change this attitude. The Tibetan Equality Project (TEP) is a good example. TEP is a platform specially designed for the queer Tibetan community which consists of queer Tibetan “collaborators” from all over the world. A project that began in New York, TEP invites queer Tibetans to attend virtual meetings open to all queer Tibetans worldwide.
TEP recently held a procession on June 5 during the Queens Pride Parade in New York City. Mingyur Paldron, a transgender Tibetan scholar, was part of the march and recently became a regular contributor. Paldron, 37, was born in India and moved to the United States in 1989, one of the first Tibetans to live in America at the time. He holds a doctorate in rhetoric with a specialization in gender, women and sexuality from UC Berkeley.
“While activism is wonderful, it’s not a word I usually use for myself. I see myself as an individual and sometimes as a teacher,” says Paldron. On Pride Day, he posted on his Instagram, holding a “Tibetan Trans and Proud” sign.
Paldron educates and speaks about gender identities to students and runs workshops. Her recent work includes “Wellness and Social Change: An LGBT+ case study”, an analytical workshop for Machik Weekend. He directed, produced, wrote, edited and helped fundraise for “The Heart’s Secret” – the first ever LGBTQ+ Tibetan animated image work.
About Tibetan, queer and other realities, he says: “I think there is a tendency in any society to bring out a dominant culture and to make people assume certain things about themselves and others. He adds that many of us don’t question these assumptions for long, if ever. “It can lead to unhappiness – that unhappiness is of our own making. I think activism is about noticing unhappiness in society and addressing its roots.
According to the research paper’Tibetan perceptions of LGBTQ‘ by Lauren Champagne, ‘Many exile Tibetan institutions focus on human rights violations in Tibet. Very little attention is paid to social inequalities and injustices within exile communities. Rhetoric among Tibetans mostly revolves around Tibetan identity, ignoring the intersection of other aspects such as age, sexual orientation and ability.
Champagne says he can’t talk about this anymore because the document is quite dated. Paldron agrees that discourse within the Tibetan community is overshadowed by political identities, leaving little room for other identities, including gender. Calling it “very detrimental to our political goals,” he says, political empowerment and new political possibilities arise when individuals feel whole and empowered.
Dolma’s perspective, however, is different. Based on her personal experience, she says that what lies at the heart of Tibetan discourse, including how they view its queer community, is “ghettoization.” “The Tibetan community lives among themselves and at the end of the day, they just listen to what other Tibetan families are going through. That way you’re not open to other opinions and perspectives in life,” she says.
Paldron agrees that this level of interconnectedness outside of Tibet is not only quite unique, but also profound. However, he says, “From my perspective, that means the possibilities are very tangible – both wonderful possibilities and damaging possibilities.”
On the positive side, this level of interconnectedness offers Tibetans the opportunity to become aware at the same time. “It puts transformation within reach,” he says.
Geshe Lobsang Dakpa, a Buddhist monk and professor of religion at the Dalai Lama’s temple, McLeod Ganj, has known Mariko since she was a monk. He says, “When I first saw her after her transition, I wasn’t as shocked as I thought.” He describes the moment saying, “That’s what she chose and she looks happy.” He calls her “a good friend”.
“There is no gender in Tibetan Buddhism, apart from the biological difference based on the segregation of monks and nuns. The focus is on the individual and who he is as a person,” explains the elderly monk.
So, despite the queerphobia within the community, there are those who are willing to accept a new perspective on gender identity and sexual preferences. To quote Tibetan spiritual leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama according to his 2014 interview with Larry King, “Same-sex marriage is a personal matter. If two people are happy and they both feel more satisfied with each other, then fine.