Finding gay Tibetans turned out to be as we expected – quite difficult.
We are on our international quest to find LGBT communities around the world, and we realized the Tibet Autonomous Region would be an especially challenging – and therefore intriguing – destination. It was a place we knew so little about and whose LGBT voice seemed so markedly absent from the world discourse.
We had read about the first public gay wedding this past October in China’s Fujian province, and we had heard that Shanghai even boasts a relatively vibrant gay scene. But what about Tibet?
Having some sense of the situation there, but admittedly naive about it all, my partner and I set off on our own adventure over newly-paved roads, past prayer flags and monasteries, to the enchanting and controversial city of Lhasa.
Before arriving we had read about a couple of different gay bars there called Blue Sky and Jane’s Cafe, so we were sad to learn they’d closed in recent years. One of the better (and I thought more fun) ideas to try and find LGBT Tibetans, was to sign up for a Grindr account. We included our goofy self-portrait among the catalogue of chiseled chests, saying, ‘Lesbian travelers looking for friends’. After seeing that the nearest person on Grindr was over 700 miles away, we began to fear defeat.
With a final effort we realized that all was not lost. We found a website serving the LGBT community in Asia and checked out its ‘Travelers Board’. Of the two – dated – messages, one was a short sentence which read something about ‘looking for friends’, and it had an email address. Assuming this was intended for hookups, but feeling desperate, we decided to write this mysterious individual anyway and see if he was open to meeting.
Twelve hours later there was a response – he was up for it. After so many failed attempts and dead ends, here was Jetsan*, nonchalantly on the other end saying, ‘Sure’. It seemed too good to be true.
That’s when the worry seeped in – oh my god, who is this guy? Is he a Chinese spy? A serial killer? Why was he being so trusting to people he doesn’t even know? Especially in a place like Tibet, where justified paranoia seems to be a way of life. Choosing to meet in a public space and without giving away too many details about ourselves, we made plans to meet up with Jetsan the next day in a cafe on the outskirts of Lhasa.
Shy, friendly, smart, Jetsan was not a spy or a serial killer. We soon learned he was a sweet and trusting guy whose heart and curiosity about the world was bigger than the hard times the Tibetans are facing. We smiled giddily at him across the table, and told him about the temples and monasteries we’d visited.
He’d just come from work, and was dressed smartly in a suit and tie, his hair curling a bit over his ears. His forehead, slightly lined in his early 30s, furrowed as he told us that since he is not a tour guide, people might wonder why he was talking to us (any interaction between western foreigners and local Tibetans outside the ‘tourist’ realm could potentially be seen as a ‘separatist’ act on his part by authorities). He visibly relaxed – but only a little – the longer he spoke with us.
Jetsan told us that in Tibet, there are no LGBT organizations. Although he knows people who are out, no one he knows lives a ‘gay life’ there, and Jetsan doesn’t see it as ever being possible.
Some years ago he left for mainland China, where he lived and studied for a few years in a relatively more open and gay-friendly atmosphere. Coming back from mainland China, he still had that fresh-out-of-the-closet glow about him when he told his mother he likes to date men. Jetsan’s mother replied, ‘You have a big heart, you can learn to love a woman’.
She asked whether he had dated men and listened quietly as he told her about his first boyfriend. When he started telling her about the second one, she stopped him, saying, ‘Enough! I don’t want to hear about this anymore!’
She reminded him that he came from a traditional Tibetan family and culture, where this kind of thing doesn’t happen. She blamed herself for his homosexuality, saying: ‘I should have known this would happen when you used to dress up in my clothes and my make-up as a little kid!’ Since then, she has refused to acknowledge that they had the conversation at all.
Jetsan told us that some time later, he was in his living room with his mother as she sat gossiping with a few of her friends. One of the ladies asked the others, ‘Did you hear that there is a gay bar in Lhasa?’ Jetsan laughed as he swore to us he could hear his mother’s heart start beating out of her chest. After the women left, Jetsan’s mother asked him if he had ever been to this place and he (falsely) assured her that he hadn’t.
Coming out to his friends, Jetsan told us that one of them began to cry, saying that she couldn’t believe she didn’t ‘see’ it – that he must have been going through so much suffering and she was sad she never knew. Another said she didn’t believe this was truly ‘him’. Jetsan said: ‘She thought I must be confused. She told me that I had gotten lost, and that was all.’
Later on, that same friend got drunk at a party and outed him to several other friends. A group of them even got together to discuss having an intervention with him. For a long time, Jetsan thought he must be the only gay Tibetan.
A few years later, he was in a public restroom near the center of Lhasa, where he noticed names and phone numbers written on the bathroom stalls. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a man watching him. When Jetsan left to walk away, he soon realized the man was following him. Jetsan finally turned around to confront the man, and after the guy insisted he wasn’t following him, Jetsan asked whether he was gay. The man replied, ‘maybe’.
This led to more conversation, which then eventually led to friendship. One day, his new friend took him to a popular cruising spot, where they sat for an hour, watching gay men by the dozens cruise each other. Jetsan was in heaven as he realized he was far from alone. ‘It was a good day!’, he told us, smiling. ‘A very happy day!’
Jetsan had met and dated a few men, and described having had two serious relationships – both with Chinese men. He told us, somewhat surprisingly, that there seems to be more Tibetan-Chinese mixing than for heterosexual couples.
He told us sadly many gay men do end up getting married and having children, often continuing their relationships with men on the side. Jetsan mentioned there have been cases of women blackmailing their husbands if and when he tries to divorce her, threatening to tell his family about his sexual orientation.
He said that for most of the gay men he knows it is difficult to stay in monogamous relationships with other men. When we asked why this was, he replied that it was probably a combination of several things: social pressure, inability to exist as an ‘out’ couple, as well as competition with other gay men.
He mused it’s probably easier for women to live together as a couple – other people would leave them alone, thinking that they’d been mistreated by men and so had given up on dating. He responded with incredulity when Katie said her mom has a friend who’s been with his partner for 30 years.
As security has increased throughout the city in recent years, there have been fewer chances and places to safely cruise, so people are increasingly finding one another on the internet (we learned that there is another app similar to Grindr which is more popular).
Jetsan told us he thinks sometimes about moving back to mainland China, where he could live more openly as a gay man. But he feels it would be an insult to leave his family who loves him and who have been so supportive of him for the unknown ‘chance’ of a relationship elsewhere. He is so close to them that he simply cannot leave them, and so – at least for now – he’s decided to stay.
‘I have to be a good son,’ he told us sadly. ‘I have to keep my family together.’
When we asked him about the situation for lesbians in Tibet, he replied that he didn’t know any, but he had a friend who knew someone. He added there might even be an underground lesbian bar in Lhasa. Jetsan mentioned he used to occasionally visit another gay bar, but when it became ‘too popular’ he stopped going there, worrying that someone might recognize him (he is not out at work).
Jetsan told us about a newly-opened gay bar, and after seeing our interest, offered to take us there. We sat in the backseat of his weather-beaten car, excited to meet scores of fabulous queer Tibetans. We drove through the darkened backroads of Lhasa and finally came to a stop in a quiet residential area. Jetsan got out of the car and knocked on the door of a house – which we then realized was the bar – and came back to sadly tell us it was closed. Our dreams were dashed, but as he drove us back to our hotel we settled into the quiet thrill of having met someone as amazing as Jetsan.
A few days later we left Lhasa, carrying in our minds the otherworldly beauty, the warmth of the people and an admiration for Jetsan and for all LGBT Tibetans.
He said something to us that night which makes clear the resilience of the Tibetan people. He told us: ‘I want people to know there are gay Tibetans! We exist. I want the world to know we are here.’
*Jetsan’s name and some other, minor, details have been changed in order to protect him.