Wednesday, November 22, 2006

His Holiness the Dalai Lama Speaks on Gay matters

by Dennis Conkin
Bay Area Reporter, June 19th, 1997

The Dalai Lama, world-revered leader of millions of Buddhists and leader of the Tibetan people, spoke out strongly against discrimination and violence against lesbians and gays during an extraordinary Wednesday, June 11 meeting in San Francisco with lesbian and gay Buddhists, clergy, and human rights activists.

The religious leader said at the press conference that he had previously been asked his views on gay marriage, and said that such social sanction of gay relationships "has to be judged in the context of the society itself and the laws and social norms." During the 45-minute meeting, the Nobel peace laureate and Buddhist religious leader voiced his support for the full recognition of human rights for all people, regardless of sexual orientation.

Buddhist sexual proscriptions ban homosexual sexual activity and heterosexual sex through orifices other than the vagina, including masturbation or other sexual activity with the hand. Buddhist proscriptions also forbid sex at certain times - such as during full and half moon days, the daytime, and during a wife's menstrual period or pregnancy - or near shrines or temples. Adultery is considered sexual misconduct, but the hiring of a female prostitute for penile-vaginal sex is not, unless one pays a third party to procure the person.

From a "Buddhist point of view," lesbian and gay sex "is generally considered sexual misconduct," the Dalai Lama told reporters at a press conference a day earlier.

However, such proscriptions are for members of the Buddhist faith - and from "society's viewpoint," homosexual sexual relations can be "of mutual benefit, enjoyable, and harmless," according to the Dalai Lama.

"His Holiness was greatly concerned by reports made available to him regarding violence and discrimination against gay and lesbian people. His Holiness opposes violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation. He urges respect, tolerance, compassion, and the full recognition of human rights for all," said Office of Tibet spokesman Dawa Tsering in a statement issued within an hour of the meeting.

Photographs of the historic event were taken, but were available only on the condition that participants' quotes be reviewed prior to publication. That condition violates journalistic canons regarding the freedom of the press. The Bay Area Reporter declined any conditions for the release of the photographs and has lodged a protest with the National Gay and Lesbian Journalism Association over their embargo.

Concern about violence

The extraordinary meeting was held at the Buddhist leader's suite at the Fairmont Hotel, on the last day of "Peacemaking: The Power of Non-Violence," a three-day conference held at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

Sponsored by The California Institute of Asian Studies and Tibet House, the conference featured plenary sessions, workshops, and discussions with a wide array of international, national, and local human rights and violence prevention and intervention leaders, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, actor Edward James Olmos, East Timor human rights leader and Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, and others, including a representative of Nobel peace laureate and Guatemalan peace activist Rigoberta Menchu.

The meeting with lesbians and gays followed a January 1996 report by the Bay Area Reporter that detailed an open letter by Buddhist AIDS Project coordinator Steve Peskind, asking the world-revered spiritual leader of millions of Buddhists to publicly clarify his published contradictory statements on homosexuality.

Peskind said that he was motivated by concern about the violence and harm caused to lesbian and gays around the world through pronouncements against homosexual sexual activity by Buddhist religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama.

Many gay and lesbian Buddhists have reported virulenty anti-gay sentiments and teachings from religious teachers in Tibetan and other Buddhist practice lines.

A former Tibetan Buddhist monk, Peskind is a well-known figure in Buddhist and AIDS circles and is a co-founder of the San Francisco-based Shanti Project and Coming Home Hospice.

When asked last January by the Bay Area Reporter if the Dalai Lama might meet with Peskind or other lesbian and gay Buddhists leaders during the June conference, a California Institute For Integral Studies special events organizer initially indicated that such a tete-a-tete would be unlikely.

Gay and lesbian political and anti-violence leaders including Supervisor Tom Ammiano and Lester Olmstead-Rose quickly joined with Peskind, asking for the clarification of the religious leader's statements proclaiming homosexual sex as sexual misconduct.

Warm and relaxed

The possibility of organized gay and lesbian protest, including a high-profile public information ad campaign conducted in the national media such as the New York Times - and conference site picketing - was defused after the flap was discussed during a cabinet session of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, and a meeting with Peskind and others was scheduled by the Office of Tibet.

Peskind and Buddhist AIDS Project co-leader Jim Purfield were also hastily invited by Tibet House conference organizers to present a workshop on homophobia and violence with representatives of Community United Against Violence. The workshop drew an estimated 50 participants, many of them lesbian and gay. Several AIDS prevention and social service professionals who work with lesbian and gay youth also attended that workshop.

The private meeting between representatives of the lesbian and gay community and the Dalai Lama was described as "warm and relaxed."

The Dalai Lama also expressed interest in the insights of modern scientific research on homosexuality and its value in developing new understanding of Buddhist texts that nix homosexual activity, participants said.

Reiterating in the private meeting that he did not have the authority to unilaterally reinterpret Buddhist scriptures, the Dalai Lama also urged those present to build a consensus among other Buddhist traditions and communities to collectively change the understanding of the Buddhist scriptural references on sexuality for contemporary society, according to a joint statement issued by participants.

During the meeting, the Dalai Lama also candidly acknowledged that he did not know the foundations of scriptural proscriptions against sexual activity or where they originated, Peskind said.

Participants also said the Dalai Lama expressed the "willingness to consider the possibility that some of the teachings may be specific to a particular cultural and historic context."

Dogmatic response

According to longtime Buddhist observer and writer Scott Hunt, whose 1993 interview with the leader was published in the January/February 1994 Out magazine, the response of the Dalai Lama to the controversy over the teachings is significant.

Hunt said the religious leader could have put forth the underlying "moral underpinnings" of the strictures - and clearly stated the basis and positive effects of such teachings.

Instead, Hunt said, by propounding the teachings without such discussion, the Dalai Lama seems to be "engaging in dogmatic repetition" and is apparently unable to substantiate their beneficial character, and because of his response, the validity of the teachings have been cast "into serious doubt." Vigorous debate about such issues and exception to the views of religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama are neither heresy or disrespectful in Buddhist traditions.

"In fact, it's the practitioner's duty to examine dogmatic views and to determine their validity," Hunt said. During the private session, the religious teacher told the activists they would have a harder time changing Buddhist scripture and tradition than advocating for their human rights based on Buddhist principles, according to Peskind. Organized for the Office of Tibet by attorney Eva Herzer, president of the International Committee of Lawyers For Tibet, the historic meeting included Herzer, Peskind, Buddhist Peace Fellowship activist and Claremont Graduate School Professor of Education Lourdes Arguelles, and Jose Ignacio Cabezon, a gay Buddhist scholar and professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.

Other participants included the Ven. K.T. Shedrup Gyatso, a fully ordained and openly gay Buddhist monk and teacher who is the spiritual director of the San Jose Tibetan Temple; International Gay And Lesbian Human Rights Commission co-chair Tinku Ali Ishtiaq; and former Congregation Sha'ar Zahav Rabbi Yoel Khan.

"There is still room for movement," Ishtiaq told the Bay Area Reporter. But the human rights activist said the Dalai Lama's support for lesbian and gay rights is "very significant."

Ishtiaq said that the Nobel laureate commands tremendous respect around the world and hoped the leader's historic statement would have "considerable impact on non-Buddhist religious traditions." A conference on Buddhism, sex, gender, and diversity issues is being planned, following the historic meeting with the world religious leader.

Forbidden Fruit in the Forbidden Land

As the first western journalist to interview gays in Tibet, Garry Otton dodges Himalayan landslides and the Chinese secret police searching for the abominable homosexual living on the Roof of the World.

The Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, high up in the frozen wastes of Eskdalemuir in Dumfrieshire is not the best place to look for gay sex. The soft, enchanting voice of its senior monk assured me that while there was nothing wrong with gay sex - though being a celibate monk himself, he was probably not the best person to ask - celibacy was very much a personal choice! "Lay monks, yes, they may indulge in gay sex. It is not sex, but the attachment to it that a celibate monk seeks to overcome. For monks that don't achieve it, well that is a naughty monk!" He talks to me like a kind teacher would his novice. I'm warming to him already! He is sorry for the Dalai Lama, who has had so much pressure put on him to comment on the issue of homosexuality following the publication of my feature on gay Tibetans in Attitude magazine. "I'm glad He has taken on that responsibility. But then, He had no choice!" he adds. I hesitated at apologising for putting His Holiness through so much trouble.

Four years ago, a crack appeared in the wall. A letter found its way to Australian gay magazine, Capital Q from a Chinese man claiming he was being subjected to regular sessions of Electro-shock therapy while his lover underwent hard labour in a re-education camp. Although homosexuality is not illegal in China, they were accused of "bad morality and mental disorders," indulging in a practice that was expected to "disrupt social order and harm society." He pleaded in his letter to the outside world: "Please do not forget that gay people are suffering in China."

Gay rights don't amount to much in a country that turned its guns on its own people in Tiannanmen Square and, according to Amnesty International, executes more of its citizens every year than the rest of the world put together. They barely amount to much amongst countries busy selling China arms, equipment used for torture and shaking hands with them on lucrative business deals. So what the world cares for homosexuals living in that vast, neighbouring Himalayan region of Tibet, occupied by the People's Republic of China since 1959, is anybody's guess.

Up until now, I had assumed Tin Tin was the only gay man in Tibet. Tsering Shakya from the Tibet Information Network in London did his best to set me straight. "Before the present Dalai Lama, Tibet was ruled by the Regent Reting who was widely rumoured amongst the aristocracy to have had boyfriends. Homosexuality was also widespread in Tibetan monasteries, which, before the Chinese invaded, could house up to several thousand men and boys. Each monastery had its own tall, strong disciplinarian monks who carried huge sticks and acted as monk-policemen. They did not have a scholarly attitude or a particularly religious inclination and wore make-up. Parents would often frighten their children by warning them the monk-police would take them away. There was much gossip about their interest in young boys. The expression in Tibetan, trap'i kedmen means 'monk's wife' and refers to the effeminate boys who formed relationships with these monk-police."

In the autumn of 1996, I stuffed my rucksack with layers of clothes in preparation for those cold Himalayan nights. Hi-energy bars for when you don't fancy the plate du jour and imodium for when it doesn't fancy you! I was ready. Well, almost. Huge mountains of snow and bureaucracy have to be crossed before anyone can enter Tibet. Soldiers of the Red Army are posted on all roads in and out of Tibet's capital, Lhasa. They hug their rifles on bridges, in towns, at various posts along major routes and, of course, on the borders. Visas can be refused at the last minute. China can do without tourists snooping around, but our hard currency is as welcome to them as white gold from the Yamdrok Tso Lake. The Chinese make a compromise by forbidding entry to individual travellers and granting visas only to tour groups on a restricted itinerary. My attempt to get an individual visa was flatly refused, but I passed as a student and latched on to a group from Bangkok.

The denial of homosexuality, of course, pays lip service to the supremacy of heterosexuality. This is worldwide and man-made. When a survey conducted by the Indian Medical Association revealed an astonishing 90% of men in Delhi's Tihar prison indulged in gay sex, the Inspector General of prisons, Ms Kiran Bedi told the TV programme Eyewitness that homosexuality was not a "problem" in Indian prisons. She said: "The chronic overcrowding in the Tihar jail is a deterrent against homosexuality." She was echoed by the Family Conciliation Service Centre's Janak Raj who declared, "homosexuality is against the dignity, honour and religious sentiment of the citizen's of the country" and suggested strip lighting as a deterrent.

On the other hand, of course, such denial provides the perfect smokescreen for men eager to explore the homosexual side of their nature. In Britain there exists that same level of denial behind a different smokescreen. Married men who enjoy sex with men, or otherwise don't identify as gay at all, privately trawl the lonely hearts ads or cruise areas they know like-minded men go.

It is endemic. Whether in the dead of night or under everyone's noses like Nepal: It serves the same purpose. Just look to the east and weep, men!

Not everyone who had booked the morning flight to Lhasa on China Southwestern Airlines was able to board the plane. There were simply not enough seats for the number of people who had booked. Furious passengers stormed the check-in desk, desperately waving their tickets at anyone remotely official. Our group, patched together by a tour operator, was at the front of the scrum. On board, and ignoring the hideous in-flight recording of an American game show, I watched in awe as we skirted Everest and the tallest mountains on the planet, before touching down on the Roof of the World.

Lhasa is 37 miles from the airstrip at Gongkar. The drive into the capital is through a valley hemmed in by mountains. The sky is a blue, so deep, you half expect to see the moon and stars. In Lhasa, I found the Tibetans notoriously shy after years of surveillance by a network of spies and informers. This was in sharp contrast to the Chinese whose music and propaganda barked from distorted loudspeakers and tannoys everywhere. The Chinese have been pouring into Tibet on the back of financial incentives handed out from Beijing for years. They own most of Lhasa now, mowing down Tibetan monasteries and buildings to make way for their gawdy shops, tasteless architecture and crappy monuments to socialism. Rows of brothels line the sacred Lingkhor, a route trodden by centuries of pilgrims. At first, Lhasa is a huge disappointment: A Chinese Take-Away with as much taste as a spring roll. I spent my first day acclimatising to the lack of oxygen. I wandered down to the Chinese market in front of the Potala Palace, the former home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Nobel Peace prize winner and 14th reincarnation of Chenrezi, the Buddha of Compassion, who now runs his Government-in Exile from India. At her stall, I found a Chinese woman selling framed pictures of Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, the late communist leader of China; who starved thousands to death in his Great Leap Forward.

My search for gay Tibetans soon presented itself in the form of a 24-year-old former refugee called Lobsang. We got chatting by a market stall. He had crossed the Himalayas to escape Chinese rule and was taught English in India before being sent back to Tibet. "Tell the outside world what is happening in my country," he begged. I promised I would if he could do something for me. So we struck a deal. Lobsang would find me a "homo-seshual."

This is my part of the deal: -
Lobsang's grandfather had been tortured and killed by the invading Chinese. He'd been spared none of the tyrannical stories of the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao Tse-tung and like nearly all Tibetans, yearns for a free Tibet. His feelings ran so deep, that when I played him the South American group, Mecano's "Dalai Lama" on my Walkman, he kept repeating the words Dalai Lama every time he heard it and wiped away the tears with his sleeve.

When China first invaded Tibet, they wanted to wipe out its past. Images and artefacts were either melted down to swell Beijing's coffers or sold in antique markets in Hong Kong. Tibetans were no longer allowed to wear their traditional costume, or worship freely. Fewer than 10 of its 2,463 monasteries survived. These were crazy times. Protesters were shot or imprisoned. Women had abortions forced on them or their children taken away for indoctrination in China. Most bizarrely, whole villages were ordered out into the fields to kill 'parasites.' Beating pots and pans the birds dropped dead from exhaustion. Some species were wiped out altogether. It was a task particularly resented by most Tibetans for whom all life is sacrosanct. Even children had to participate: collecting their quota of insects in jars. But without birds to eat them, the insects thrived and blighted the crops. 1960 gripped the whole of China by a terrible famine. Party cadres beat peasants who tried to steal wheat kernels from the fields. As starvation led to cannibalism, the Panchen Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader wrote to Chairman Mao imploring him to have compassion on his countrymen after witnessing peasants picking grain from horse-manure. For his impudence, Mao threw him in prison. 30 million Chinese and Tibetans perished.

Lobsang agreed to contact two "homo-seshual brothers" he knew. More remarkably, he confided, "they love each other." Further questioning revealed his interpretation of "brothers" was a little on the generous side. They were, in fact, lovers. I hoped these "homo-seshuals" wouldn't be too disappointed when they discovered all I wanted was a quick chat over a small glass of chang. At first, Lobsang suggested bringing a "homo-seshual" to the hotel, but after spotting the cameras in the lobby recording our every move, I didn't want to take any chances. It was difficult enough arranging anything outside our tour group's tight schedule, but by a strange twist of fate, the last minute cancellation of a visit to Ganden monastery left the following afternoon free. The People's Armed Police had been called in after monks refused to remove pictures of the Dalai Lama at the monastery. There had been some shootings. It was now closed to foreigners.

We arranged to meet outside the gates of the beautiful Norbulingka Park. These are the gardens of the Summer Palace from where the Dalai Lama made his impromptu escape into exile at a few minutes before 10pm on the 19th March 1959, when the Chinese began shelling Lhasa. I arrived early by rickshaw and spent some melancholy hours walking through the gardens, my head bowed deep in thought. My reverie was eventually disturbed by the sound of some giggling in the grass to my left. A small family was picnicking together, watching their three-year-old chasing butterflies. After I returned their smiles, they beckoned me to join them and pushed a cup of warm yak butter tea into my hand. I spent some time amusing them with my watercolours before engaging in conversation with the father who was learning English at a nearby school. As the sun sank behind the trees, I took a quick look at my watch, reminding me I was supposed to meet Lobsang outside by the gates of the Norbulingka Park. Before getting up to leave, I pressed my hands together and bowed my head to each family member in turn.

When I arrived at the gates, Lobsang was sitting in the shade of a willow tree looking downcast. He shrugged his shoulders in despair. His friend, Tsering, the "homo-seshual" had not turned up.

My friend, Lobsang suggested bringing his "homo-seshual" friend, Tsering, to the hotel where I was staying in Lhasa,

but after spotting the cameras in the lobby, I didn't want to take any chances. We arranged to meet the following afternoon outside the gates of the Norbulingka Park. These are the gardens of the Summer Palace from where the Dalai Lama made his impromptu escape into exile at a few minutes before 10pm, 19th March 1959, when the Chinese began shelling Lhasa. When I arrived, Lobsang was sitting in the shade of a willow tree looking downcast. His friend, Tsering, the "homo-seshual" had not turned up. Lobsang implored me to let him try again the following evening.

I was up before sunrise the next day, sitting alone on Thieves Island with my watercolours, trying to paint the Potala as the sun rose up over the mountains behind me. A Chinese motorcyclist drove by, stopping a little way up the dusty road to watch me through his rear-view mirror. Later that afternoon, lit by hundreds of flickering butter-lamps, I was led round the dark, musty corridors of the Jokhang temple before I dodged the tour guide, jumped on a rickshaw and headed back to the hotel lobby to greet Lobsang. He looked quite flustered. He couldn't find Tsering, the "homo-seshual" anywhere. He had met up with him at his usual watering hole the previous evening, but one drink had turned to another, and Tsering staggered home drunk. Nobody had seen him since. "Where does he drink?" I asked, settling for the discovery of a Tibetan gay bar. Lobsang described a restaurant. A gay restaurant, then… and pushed Lobsang into a taxi. We turned up at a dark candlelit shack, a mile or so away from the Potala. Half a dozen Tibetans were sitting round tables, drinking by candlelight. My eyes met a craggy-faced yak herdsmen-type in a shabby suit and hair like Jo Brand. I grit my teeth and returned his smile. From a dark corner a young man in tight denim trousers, displaying the international language of camp, sashayed up to our table to speak to Lobsang in Tibetan. Although he looked about 15, Tish was an alcoholic 23-year-old and a close friend of Tsering the "homo-seshual." I clocked the bitten fingernails and nervous giggle and asked him if he ever had a boyfriend. Lobsang blew the plot and told Tish I wanted to know if he was a "homo-seshual." This is an insult in Tibet. Tish was horrified. He shook his head and looked down at his drink in embarrassment.

I had brought with me some international gay-lifestyle magazines, including Out and Attitude, and - rather carelessly - passed them round for everyone to see. The air was filled with gasps, guffaws and loud exclamations. A couple of females ran around enthusiastically drawing everyone's attention to some boy-babe pin-up. Once Lobsang had established my credentials to the curious, food was rushed to our table whilst someone was dispatched to search for Tsering the "homo-seshual." Following Lobsang's example, I rolled up the tsampa (barley flour) in my left hand and dipped it in the bowl of yak meat momos (ravioli). In between mouthfuls, I sipped hot yak butter tea from a cup, which Tibetans have an annoying habit of refilling. I thought, if they didn't stop, they would get my Linda Blair impression, covering them in rancid, half-digested, yak butter puke. Believe me. Yak butter is not to everyone's taste! At best it is like a broth, but can be very salty. For authenticity, this was dressed with a few yak hairs.

Before I finished my meal, Lobsang said Tish was going to take us in the taxi to find Tsering. Expressing much regret at not being able to finish my yak butter tea, we drove to another part of old Lhasa and stopped outside a long staircase leading to a flat above some Chinese shops. Tsering wasn't at home. We stopped further up the road at another bar. He wasn't there, either. Before we had a chance to drive off, a large Tibetan woman called Dolma in shocking pink-rock lipstick and blue eye shadow stormed out, waving to us to come in. "Tsering is coming!" she yelled in Tibetan. Dolma ushered us into the dark, candlelit interior and sat us at a table amongst another small, mixed group of Tibetans drinking beer. After a few minutes, the door opened, and Tsering walked in with a gay friend. Tsering was a slim 25-year-old in tight-fitting dungarees and a white polo neck. His shock of black hair fell over his face meeting his dark, neat, plucked eyebrows. Tsering spoke no English, but politely introduced me to his shy, 29-year-old friend, Buchung. Somehow, word had got round that I was "helping Tibetans" and with something approaching haste, Dolma bustled us through a curtain flap into a tiny room at the back. I handed the gay magazines, bulging with the affluence of western gay culture, to Tsering and Buchung. Half a dozen or so other interested Tibetans craned their necks to see. Only Tsering and Buchung turned the pages in total silence. I explained to them how I wanted people in the west to know how Tibetan gays lived. Tsering looked at me with piercing dark eyes and said in Tibetan: "I would love to be free to come and tell you."

Tsering knocked back his beer. The strain of gay life in Tibet takes its toll. Alcohol abuse is common. I wanted to know what Tsering thought of the habit of men and boys holding hands in Tibet? He gave me a knowing smile. "They love each other, of course. That is why they do it." I advised him that the Dalai Lama had spoken out in support of homosexual relationships during a tour of Sweden in the summer of 1996, saying: "There are no acts of love between adults that one can or should condemn." I discretely produced a picture of the Dalai Lama from my pocket. Tourists have been arrested for showing his picture. The penalties to Tibetans found in possession of one are even more severe. "Do you know what is the greatest prize in the world anyone can be awarded?" I asked, making a wide gesture to emphasis my point. "It is called the Nobel Peace Prize. And the Dalai Lama has been awarded that prize." In a touching ceremony, Tsering held the picture to his forehead and passed it round for everyone to do the same. Tears filled their eyes. It would have been callous to mention the Dalai Lama's remarks in his book Beyond Dogma where he described some gay sex acts as "sexual misconduct… improper" and "inappropriate." These remarks, a senior monk at Samye Ling Tibetan Retreat in Eskdalemuir in Dumfrieshire, later told me, "were misunderstood."

In 1997, The story of my experiences in Tibet appealed to James Collard, editor of the UK gay lifestyle magazine, Attitude and now editor of American magazine, Out and were printed in Attitude. Following its publication, a statement was issued by the Dalai Lama's office: "His Holiness was greatly concerned by reports made available to him regarding violence and discrimination against gay and lesbian people. His Holiness opposes violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation. He urges respect, tolerance, compassion, and the full recognition of human rights for all." He went on to issue a statement that urged further study of human sexuality by Buddhists with a view to arriving at a new interpretation of Buddhist scripture. At Samye Ling, in Scotland, the senior monk welcomed the Dalai Lama's statement but confessed there was "no responsibility here" to explore any new interpretations.

For Tibetans, Buchung and Tsering were well dressed. Selling your body for sex is easy in Lhasa. The extent of prostitution amongst gay men in Tibet might, in part, be explained by the attitudes to homosexuality here. Although Tsering had been with his boyfriend for eight years, he had frequently operated as a rent-boy, but was keen to express with indignation that he had never slept with Chinese. "Never!" Tsering assured me there were no gay bars, as such, in Lhasa. "That would be too dangerous." He claimed to know 18 other gays, and would be happy for me to meet them all if I had more time. "We meet in each others houses." Much like Britain in the fifties. But then I remembered Lobsang telling me how, for Tibet, the clock had stopped at a few minutes before 10pm on 19th March 1959 when the Dalai Lama fled into exile. As a mark of protest, and much to the annoyance of the Chinese, Tibetans kept stopping the clocks at that time.

I wanted to know how Tsering and Buchung met guys. "We go out to bars and discos looking for Smart Guys," said Buchung. Smart Guys? I was left juggling with a mental picture of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. "Guys dressed to impress... Going out to pick up... Looking for sex: Smart Guys." With the Tibetan beer kicking in, I asked Tsering if Smart Guys liked to fuck him? They did. And without condoms? Yes. But usually just ejaculating between his legs. Both he and Buchung had occasional run-ins with the Public Security Bureau. Tsering admitted to having been arrested on a number of occasions. "I am not afraid," he said. "They just let me go. Sometimes I dress up, in clothes of a woman. I do not do that now. It is too dangerous. It is much harder now. I would be punished severely." Everyone agreed that the authorities treat Tibetans roughly. Tsering lifted his head to show me a fading bruise. "Smart Guy," he said, pointing to his eye. The life of a gay Tibetan was indeed very hard.

Suddenly, the curtain separating us from the rest of the bar was pulled open and two Chinese men in suits burst in. In clipped English, one said to me sharply: "Can I be of assistance? I speak English." My notepad slipped between my legs to the floor. The informers had been busy. I explained a little helplessly how I wanted to find homosexuals. "There are no homosexuals in Tibet…" he said brusquely, his comrade flicking through a copy of Out. "It is a western disease." I nodded, pretending he was making sense. Only Lobsang understood him, but everyone else knew why he was here. I was a foreigner. Tibetans have only recently been allowed to talk to us. "This does not happen in Tibet," he said again, laughing at the pictures. "You won't see any here." Tsering sat bolt upright in his chair. "I am a homosexual," he said proudly. "And I am Tibetan." It was the perfect delivery. Only a true queen could do it. I was waiting for the cheers, but there was only a timid silence before one of the Chinese shook his head and laughed. "I tell you. There are no homosexuals in Tibet." To everyone's relief, he left through the curtain flap, dismissing Tsering with a wave of his hand. "He is no good. He is mad. That man is crazy."

Thankfully, without any experience or history of gay activism in Tibet, these officials had no reason to take us seriously. As far as they were concerned, we were all crazy. They might do these strange things in the west, but only madmen would attempt them in Tibet. I handed Tsering and Buchung a parcel of clothes, before everyone hurriedly left through the curtain flap back into the main bar.

As we escaped into the street, I caught sight of a group of soldiers marching toward us and froze. Like so much of the People's Liberation Army, they were just teenagers. They filed past us as I climbed into a battered taxi. Tsering ran up to me and squeezed my hand. He had had a chance to inspect the collection of western clothes and was trying to say "thank you" in broken English.

Early next morning four of us, including a driver and official guide set off by road across the Himalayas on the same route out of Lhasa the Dalai Lama took when he fled Tibet. The crumbling roads became more and more treacherous as we climbed to 18,000 feet above sea level. Somewhere, high on the mountain pass and in the dead of night, we broke down. The electrics had packed up on the Land Rover and we had no lights. I had been trying to sleep under an old yak skin, but now had to hang out of the window shining a torch to light the way. Himalayan nights are eerie. It is the sheer vastness of it all. I have never before seen so many stars in the sky. The Land Rover trundled slowly forward, following a light too dim to expose the sheer drop on the side of the mountain. We finally reached a hostel at the side of the road and were offered a small outhouse to sleep. I was very tired. Although I didn't suffer altitude sickness as bad as some, I fell into an uneasy sleep, my dreams muddled and strange.

The next morning I took a welcome bath in hot springs. I couldn't help noticing how the Tibetans quickly cover themselves when bathing near strangers. I know for a fact they harbour no such prudery amongst themselves. At the side of the road I caught sight of a group of Tibetan men swimming in a lake. Not only were they completely naked, one man lay on top of another in full view of any passing trucks.

Along the way, if bridges had collapsed in the monsoon rains, we just plunged the vehicle into raging torrents until the water splashed over the bonnet and poured in through the doors to reach the other side. Eventually, we were stopped by a serious landslide and had to admit defeat. We abandoned the Land Rover at the side of the road and bribed a truck driver to take us as far as he could to the border.

On the way, I met a group of young, celibate monks who, through a translator, talked to me about life in a monastery. After some initial shyness, they admitted that some monks got sex "between the legs." But not any of them, of course! This peculiar practice conveniently circumvents actual penetration of a hole, which Buddhists see as a clear contravention of their vows. I later sought advice from a very unlikely source: A celibate monk - of all people - from the Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, high up in the frozen wastes of Eskdalemuir in Dumfrieshire. "No, there is nothing wrong with gay sex," he assured me, "not for lay monks. Celibacy is a personal choice," he told me. "It is not sex, but the attachment to it that celibate monks seek to overcome. For monks that don't achieve it, well that is a naughty monk!" He was also very sorry for the Dalai Lama, whom he believed had had so much pressure put on him to comment on the issue of homosexuality following the release of my feature on gay Tibetans. "I'm glad He has taken on that responsibility. But then, He had no choice!" I apologised for putting His Holiness through so much trouble. For the group of naughty monks, I left them a small short-wave radio, which I am pleased to say, will give them the chance to hear something besides the infernal propaganda delivered by those ubiquitous Chinese tannoys. Perhaps news that their God-king is returning to a free Tibet and Tsering is hoisting the Freedom flag - that is to say, everyone's freedom - from the highest place in the world.

Certain changes have been made to protect the lives of individuals' identities.

Written by Garry Otton


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Seven Inches in Tibet

Durian Gray

Forget Lost Horizon--it's more like Lost Weekend for the lost generation in Lhasa. "Are you ready?" blasts the sound system promptly at 10 pm--and the crowd of young twenty-somethings shouts in unison,

"Yo! Hey! Disco! Disco!".

Benny, the beaming DJ from Chengdu cranks up the sound, the strobe lights flash and the dance floor fills up.

It's Friday night in Lhasa at the Top End Disco. The crowd is about 60% male, peach-fuzz faces and slant eyes, cuteness to die for.

It's a rice-queen's wet dream--although strictly speaking Tibetans do not eat much rice, but subsist on yak meat, potatoes, noodles and tsampa (roasted barley flour). Like their peers anywhere else in the world, these guys and girls (there are even a few drag queens), just wanna have fun.

You be the man!

There are virtually no foreigners--and being the only "European" in the hall, guys come up to invite me to join them--drinks (Pabst Blue Ribbon, Lhasa Beer or Coca-Colas) are on them.

I'm dragged to the dance floor to join their little circle, pay for my cab fare back to the hotel--and if you're lucky, sometimes you might get someone to go back with you after hand-holding, cuddling and dancing in the dark.

One well-built Tibetan student, on holiday from the University of Beijing, asked me to do a slow dance with him--pressing me up against his sweaty, barrel chest, and whispered, "You be the man."

Gay readers of Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet must have been heartened by the author's disclosure that in Tibet homosexuality is very common.

It is even condoned as giving proof that women play no part in the life of those monks that indulge in it." The former SS Austrian Alpinist (portrayed by Brad Pitt on the screen) who fled to Tibet from a British WWII internment camp in India, also admitted finding the Dalai Lama's brother an "attractive youth". So just as Harrer doesn't like to talk about his Nazi past, he may also have had other secrets in the closet. In any case, gay travellers will want to take their asses over the Himmies to look for their own seven inches in Tibet.

From Kathmandu to Lhasa

From Nepal you have to join a group travelling from Kathmandu to Lhasa, by air or overland, as individual travel is not allowed. Even in a Land Cruiser it is an arduous journey that could take three to five days. Crossing the Friendship Bridge from the Nepal border into Tibet and climbing steep cliffs into what appears to be a Chinese landscape painting with pagodas and cascading waterfalls, I have to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming. Is this really Tibet--or is it a matte backdrop for Lost Horizon?

On our first night out, our Tibetan guide and cars had not yet arrived from Lhasa, so we were obliged to spend the night in the seedy border town of Zhangmu which, with its vice and (female) prostitution, has earned itself the reputation of being the Tijuana of Tibet. However, that could mean fun for some. We spent the night at the Gang Gyen hotel with its cute, friendly and obliging Nepalese staff. There is even a disco on the premises and a public bath. The Tibetan bath attendant was happy to show off his large tap in the shower stall, and was more than generous with the copious amounts of shower cream.

On the third day we detoured off the main road past lunar landscape to the Sakya Monastery where the flirty non-celibate monks challenge a visitor to arm-wrestling with their bare muscular arms. Unlike Thai monks, these guys didn't seem to mind an arm around the waist. By evening we reach Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet and which resembles generic Central Asia with its broad poplar lined boulevards and bazaars tended by Muslim merchants.

Practising English Tibetan style

We share a hotel with a troupe of equestrian acrobats who perform in a field the next day. The well-built, young horsemen are very friendly and surprisingly a few speak some English. One shows me their stables at dusk and takes me back to his room to "practice English". One of the first things he wants to learn, he indicates, is the word for lips as he plants his on my kisser.

On the fifth day we finally reach Lhasa. Aside from the fabulous, looming Potala Palace, considered one of the wonders of the world. Lhasa looks uniformly un-exotic until we reach the old Tibetan "quarter". Signs are in Chinese and the little English signage that appears everywhere is "OK", indicating karaoke. Across from the Potala a neon sign blinks "JJ Disco" a reminder that distractions such as discos, karaoke, bowling, brothels and roller rinks are omnipresent in Lhasa.

In contrast to South Asian countries, Tibet, as the rest of China, there is little social restriction against male and female mixing in public--and the barbers giving men's haircuts are all female, and many double as "masseuses". With the large contingent of PLA soldiers stationed there, Lhasa has more (female) sex-workers per capita than Bangkok!

If you want to make friends in Lhasa, it's probably a good idea to start out with your guide whose English skills and knowledge of Lhasa would be pretty good. Many of the guides--mostly young men in their early 20s--were schooled in India, and after graduation returned to Tibet to find employment, but the Chinese authorities are now clamping down on the Indian-educated returnees who are loyal to the DL (Dalai Lama), considered a "splittist" by Beijing.

As you circumambulate around the Barkhor, you'll also find a few merchants who also speak English. The public billiard tables are good places to find guys (though they won't speak English) and the blaring videotheque caf├ęs are also good for cuddling and pick-ups. One guy came back with me to my room from one of these video joints and another followed me upstairs to the toilet for some hanky-panky.

Free show in the locker room.

Another venue to meet Tibetan guys is the indoor public swimming pool. You can get a free show in the male locker room where guys undress without covering themselves and shower naked in the open stalls. I couldn't help noticing a couple of well-hung Tibetans, and a muscular, off-duty Chinese cop. The cops in Lhasa are recruited young, and many look like Boy Scouts in uniform and are not averse to snuggling. Inside the pool, it is easy to make new friends, and phone numbers are exchanged beside tables where food and drink is served. Swimsuits and towels can be hired, if you don't bring your own.

One thing not to bring is pictures of the DL. Photos of the Nobel Peace Laureate are, of course, forbidden by the Chinese in Tibet. A few years ago, His Holiness made a disparaging comment about homosexuality in San Francisco, of all places. But the insensitive comment coming from a man known as an apostle of peace caused such an uproar in the international gay community that it was "retracted for further review". Buddhism, particularly in Tibet and Japan has a long homosexual tradition in the monasteries. Nevertheless, despite the more open-mindedness of Buddhism compared to most religions, homosexuality is not one of the twelve steps, "unless," as Boy George commented (having dabbled in Buddhism himself) "you're going backwards in high-heeled stillettos."

If you go to Tibet

The politically correct who boycott Burma may also balk at visiting Tibet. However, few Tibetans would discourage tourists from visiting their homeland. It is relatively easy to join a group from Kathmandu for the one hour flight to Lhasa or 3-5 day overland journey--either way it will cost you about $300 to get there. One reliable Kathmandu travel agency that organizes groups or can put you in touch with one is Adventure Tibet, e-mail: advtibet@wlink.com.np

It is also possible to fly to Lhasa from Bangkok via Chengdu with a special Tibet permit. From Chengdu the airfare is $150, but you still need to join a group.

Tourist infrastructure is very basic. Tibet is not for hypochondriacs or those finicky about cleanliness and hygiene. It takes a few days to adjust to the altitude of Lhasa (3,650m; 11.970 ft) with its atmosphere of only 68% oxygen. If you have a history of heart or breathing problems, consult your physician before departure. English is not widely understood. In Lhasa, Mandarin is the lingua franca.

Although politically part of China, Lhasa is a far cry from Beijing or Shanghai where gay activity is now coming openly out of the closet, and is tolerated by the authorities. The tourist infrastructure is still very primitive outside Lhasa, which boasts a few 3-star hotels. There are also a number of backpacker hotels that offer budget accommodation.

The best places to stay are the Tibetan, family-owned hotels near the Jokhang (the so-called Tibetan Quarter), and the Hotel Kyichu where one can find recent copies of Genre and Men's Health in the lobby is a particular favourite of the writer, and no problem with visitors.

Cruising

The park and open-air market across from the Potala Palace could be cruisy around late afternoon to sunset. Hang out around the pool tables, you'll be sure to make some new friends. Look for the martial and nomadic Khampas, brawny hunks in red-tasselled braids which they wrap around their head. Tibetans, like other Mongolian races, are generally hairless and beardless, if that turns you on.

Monasteries are, naturally, the logical place to meet those queer monks that Harrer writes about, although times (and mores) have changed since the Chinese occupation. The large monasteries are now tourist traps and you'll probably be herded through by your guide after paying $5.00 admission. If you want to meet Tibetan monks, you'd be better off going to India or Nepal