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