Tibet occupies an ambiguous place in colonial and decolonial studies. Though no stranger to experiences of British and American empire, Tibet was never formally colonised by a “Western” power. Moreover, the Chinese government maintains Tibet has always been an integral part of China, strongly discouraging claims to the contrary. The deep-seated Orientalism that plagues representations of Tibet as a Shangrila full of exotic legends and fairytales also leaves the actual material conditions of Tibet regretfully sidelined.
Yet if decolonisation is about questioning and undoing the workings of power in colonial contexts past and present, as well as the ways in which people confront those particular matrices of power, then Tibet should be considered a part of the decolonial project.
Since Tibet’s “incorporation” into the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the 1950s, Tibetans have found themselves faced with the power of Han hegemony in all aspects of life. Alongside widespread socio-economic disadvantage and political marginalisation, cultural and religious practices have been and continue to be variously subject to regulation by the State in the name of modernisation and development.
Gender and sexuality have also played a central role in the State’s project across Tibet. Delving deep into the politics of dispossession, colonialism and race, a decolonial queer approach examines the role of gender and sexuality in power relations, and questions the very categories of language we use to think about them across time and place.
A variety of sexual arrangements flourished in “pre-modern” Tibet. As Charlene Makley observes in her 2007 article “The Meaning of Liberation: Representations of Tibetan Women,” the practice of polyandry and the relative premarital sexual freedom granted to many Tibetan women, depending on region and class, have been pointed to as indicators of the presence of a less restrictive system of sexuality than that of their historical neighbours (China and India). Historians and anthropologists have focused much of their attention on what they characterised as exotic practices. Upon closer examination, however, such arrangements tend to result from “an ethic of fraternal solidarity and patrilocality” according to R. Stein’s classic Tibetan Civilization, rather than from the exercise of sexual agency per se.
Indigenous and hybrid Indo-Tibetan Buddhist understandings of gender described a ‘third sex.’ Buddhist gender systems, it must be noted, do not map onto current use of the terms gender and sexuality. The ‘third sex’ category was defined by Buddhist thinkers based on Indian medicine. Several important articles and books by Tibetologists have dealt with the ‘third sex’ in detail, including Janet Gyatso’s “One Plus One Makes Three: Buddhist Gender, Monasticism, and the Law of the Non-excluded Middle,” and José Cabezon’s forthcoming book on sexuality in the Indo-Tibetan tradition.
In her analysis of gender in Tibetan literature, terminology, and medical systems, Janet Gyatso points out that Buddhist conceptions of gender focused primarily on what we would term sex characteristics, rather than on gender identity. She also states that there is some overlap between gender and sexuality in the classification of the ‘third sex,’ which includes “those whose sexuality changes every half month (in some versions from male to female and back again),” as well as intersex individuals and eunuchs.
The ‘third sex’ category is expounded upon at length in Buddhist literature primarily in order to exclude this class from taking monastic vows, receiving teachings, and giving donations. These rules, like so many, were not always followed to the letter and interpretation varied across region, class, and era. It is uncertain whether ‘third sex’ was ever a fully inhabitable identity for Tibetans.
Whether ‘queer’ is a helpful way of describing these practices is questionable. Translating histories of sexuality and gender into terms that would be understood today, as well as thinking about how they relate to present practices of queerness, is no easy task, and represents a dilemma at the heart of decolonial queer studies.
Following the establishment of the PRC in 1949, a “scientific” model of monogamous heterosexuality that privileged and promoted the reproductive needs of the socialist state was emphasised. This resulted in widespread disruption of the various traditions and hierarchies of sexuality and gender that had formed the bedrock of Tibetan societies.
The regulation of sexual desire through the establishment of a strict heteronormative marital order, bolstered by household registration policies, formed a key part of the State’s modernising project across Tibet. Seeking to uproot local power structures and bring Tibetans into line with the state’s norms of sexual morality and family values, the State disbanded monasteries and nunneries. Celibacy, the most fundamental vow for a Buddhist monk or nun, came under attack, with reports of nuns and monks forced to marry and violate their vows to prove their symbolic alignment with state values. Moreover, polyandrous marital arrangements were banned in the interest of promoting “respectable” domesticity.
Almost four decades since the landmark economic reforms initiated in the late 1970s and the wide-ranging social changes that followed, the PRC’s landscape of sexuality and gender has undergone immense transformation. Today, a quick search of terms such as ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘trans,’ and ‘Tibet’ on some of the main online platforms used by Tibetans reveals quite a few essays, comments, as well as details of LGBT-themed events in Tibet. Though sometimes referred to as a taboo topic, conversations about queer desire and relationships on Weibo, Wechat and other social media are not uncommon among Tibetan netizens, and embrace a mix of Tibetan, Chinese and English terms.
Many online platforms offer translations of pieces from exile Tibetan websites. For instance, one of the most popularly circulated articles on queer Tibet is a 2007 piece from Phayul, a popular exile Tibetan web portal. The piece tells the story of a young Tibetan man who grew up in India and identifies as gay. Translated as “Homosexuality in Tibet: We are no Different,” it was widely circulated among Tibetans in Chinese cyberspace. More recently, interviews with Tenzin Mariko, an India-based Tibetan trans woman, were also shared and discussed among Tibetans across Tibet.
Beyond online spaces, Tibetan literature has also been exploring LGBT issues, with some young poets writing about same-sex desire in their work. 2011 also saw Tibetan writer Pema Tsering (pen name: Tian Yong) publish “Drolma’s Wedding,” a novel exploring, among other issues, same-gender relations in Tibet.
Some reports also note a number of gay bars across Lhasa as well as a cruising scene, but increasing security across the city has made that increasingly difficult, pushing people towards the use of dating apps.
In many ways, the discussions happening around queer issues in Tibet mirror aspects of those happening among Han Chinese. In other ways, they are highly specific to the Tibetan context. For instance, conversations about queerness in Tibet are often met with the response that these are “not our values” and “against our religion.” Indeed, essays examining what Buddhism says about sexuality and gender constitute a core part of Tibetan discussions on queer Tibet, revealing specifically Tibetan religious and cultural concerns. Moreover, some essays demonstrate a keen sense of interest in the revival of polyandry as a means of promoting and preserving Tibetan tradition, tending to reflect wider anxieties about the survival of Tibetan culture, language, identity, and national unity under an assimilationist model.
Queer Tibet is deeply transnational, navigating and weaving together ideas of sexuality and gender coming from “the West,” the Tibetan diaspora, Han Chinese LGBTQ communities, and rich indigenous histories and traditions. Under the shadow of a State that swings between ignoring and cracking down on LGBTQ communities, the politics of queer Tibet are set to remain intricately entangled in debates and discussions about the past, present, and future of Tibet and its people.
Séagh Kehoe is a PhD student in Contemporary Chinese Studies at University of Nottingham. They tweet at @seaghkehoe. Read their blog here. Chelsea E. Hall is a PhD student in Religion, Gender, and Culture at Harvard University. She tweets at @yakcowhybrid. Read her blog here. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue edition entitled “Queer Asia,” a conference held at SOAS University of London between the 16th and 18th June 2017 exploring LGBTQ+ issues in Asia. Image credit: CC jeh6/ Pixabay.