Guest report by Youdon Tenzin
In a community as small as the Tibetan diaspora, being even an inch out of heteronormative standards set by society garners attention. Social media and the close knit nature of Tibetans amplify that attention. Good or bad, you have eyes on you all the time. People gossip behind you, around you and sometimes even to your face. Ask Tenzin Mariko, she’ll tell you all about it.
Known amongst Tibetans as the first open trans woman in exile, Mariko came out in 2015. The more correct phrase to describe her journey to coming out would be “being outed.” She was born in TCV Suja and at age nine, was sent to Darjeeling to become a monk with her younger brother. She spent her teenage years studying and practicing Buddhism as a monk. However, when a video of her dancing at her friend’s wedding dressed in a gown and wig went viral, she had no choice but to disrobe.
Mariko does not regret her decision to leave the monastery although she was pressured by other monks, family members and even strangers. “If that video didn’t go viral, I won’t be here today,” she says. She is very particular about stressing on how this viral video has led her to live her most authentic life. Although things looked bleak, there was always a silver lining.
“It is about our kids, the next generation. I want to change it from the kids.”
Mariko is firm in her belief that in order to change the world, one has to start from teaching children. When it comes to talking about topics such as sexual orientation and gender identity, she believes it necessary for schools to implement a course addressing these topics. “Even in a small place like Dharamsala, the LGBTQ+ community is growing. Education can do that,” she says.
When she was in primary school, other students bullied her for the way she acted. They used derogatory words and slurs to describe her. Since there were hardly any conversations about gender identity in schools and in homes, she grew up confused about how to come to terms with her identity. She does not want other queer children to experience the same hostility and confusion.
The cruel words have not magically disappeared ever since she came out. No matter where in the world she lands herself in, she still has to deal with gawking eyes and whispers from strangers. Sometimes, they even come up to her and question her. For a world that is as old as time, people still seem new to the reality of a Tibetan trans woman. “I am so used to it,” she replies.
She partially attributes her strong mind-set to her years studying Buddhism. Although she doesn’t remember the nitty-gritty of the scriptures, her biggest takeaway is learning to be a good person. “People used to say, ‘Mariko, you are famous because you are different. I say that is wrong. I am famous because I am a good person.’ What is different?” she asks. “Everyone bleeds the same. Don’t judge with people’s body but with their mind, heart and actions.”
“In our community, we have space. If you are doing good, no matter who you are, you will have a space”
Mariko currently works as an artist, dancer and social media influencer. Since her first performance in 2015, she has been working with different non-profit organizations to raise money for different causes by holding talent shows and dance performances.
“Looking back, when you do something new in your life, you will always struggle. Once people understand what you’re doing, how they will react is all based on what you did,” she says. The work she has done for her community has earned respect, appreciation and celebrity status.
Her Instagram account boasts of more than 35K followers. Climbing the social media ladder is easy. The more difficult part is maintaining that relevancy and inspiring others to walk their truest path. Sometimes, Mariko gets messages from people who are inspired by her courage. Some come out to her privately while others seek words of comfort. “In our community, we have space. If you are doing good, no matter who you are, you will have a space,” she says.
According to Mariko, the possibilities are endless. Her existence should not revolve around or be limited to her gender identity. She will discuss issues surrounding the queer commuity when necessary. When asked about her stance on having queer people in formal leadership positions, she acknowledges that she would be more focused on humanitarian issues. “I can’t always talk about the LGBT community,” she remarks.
“This book is about courage. It is about confidence. It is about being your most authentic self.”
For someone who has had a rollercoaster of a life, it came as no surprise to people when she announced that she will be releasing an autobiography. As someone who shares the better parts of her life with others, she decided to focus on the more private aspects of her life in this book.
Mariko explains, “I don’t want people to hate me, or judge me in a bad way. These are stories I shared because they happened to me.” She is not afraid of telling her story, but she is concerned about the response it will get.
During the gruelling months of lockdown, Mariko worked on Trans in Exile: My Journey from Tibetan Monk to Trans Woman with Natasha Khullar Relph. Relph is a journalist who divides her time between India and the UK. Mariko chose to work with her because “everything was clicking.”
She knew that writing this book required her to tell stories she’s never told anyone before. With Natasha, there was an instant connection. “We were first just talking like strangers, and then it turned into an organic connection,” she says.
The two years they spent sharing stories back and forth came into fruition as Mariko is now gearing up to crowd fund her book. Although she has been receiving offers to tell her story by filmmakers and publishers, she decided to launch a campaign to crowd fund her very first book. The objective of this campaign is to garner interest and estimate the number of people who might be interested in purchasing the book. The process has been slow, but she is optimistic about its results.
For Mariko, writing a book is like immortalizing her story; the good, the bad and the ugly. She is writing it for herself and for people who are still struggling and confused about their identity. “This book is about courage. It is about confidence. It is about being your most authentic self,” she remarks.
Her ultimate purpose in life is simple. “When I become old, I want to see that I’ve lived a beautiful life. I want to see that I’ve lived my life inspiring other people and that I am proud I have done something for this community when I had time,” Mariko says.
Help Tenzin Mariko reach her goal and publish her book: https://unbound.com/books/trans-in-exile/
The author is a journalist student based in Toronto, Canada. She is currently pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in Journalism at Ryerson University.