“Journey from being a monk to a Transwoman”

Tenzin Mariko – The first Transwoman in the Tibetan Community in India

Walking around the streets of Majnu ka Tilla (A Tibetan Refugee colony in New Delhi), I came across a poster about a cultural programme in the Unite for Tibetans Association, on which Tenzin Mariko was had appeared as a guest artist. Indeed the program had already taken place a few weeks back. My friend pointed to the poster and told me that she is the first trans woman in the Tibetan community. I was really surprised to hear that, as I had never heard about it before. So, my curiosity lead me to get to know about her more and when I did. I felt like the world needed to know her story. The world needed to know how being accepted for who you are can be really hard and mostly get to know her story.

Tenzin Mariko, lives in Mcleodganj as a transgender woman. She lived her entire life as a boy who was a monk and then transitioned into a woman as she never felt comfortable in her own skin as a boy. Mariko grew up happily in Bir, Himachal all her life with her parents and her brothers. But, a tragic situation took place in her family when her parents divorced and had to separate. That is when her father made the decision to take Mariko and her brother to Darjeeling to be monks. She and her brother had no idea what was in store for them, thinking it would be a fun family vacation, they went along with him and took a train to Delhi from which where they travelled to Darjeeling.

Mariko and her brother didn’t know that monkhood would be so different, they had no idea of what was going to happen next. But, being with their father they obeyed him and lived their lives as monks. After a few years when Mariko moved to Mcleodganj, she knew that she wasn’t being true to herself and that she did not just want to be a monk but rather wanted to be a woman. Her journey and her story is deeply moving and now Mariko is a proud transwoman and is happy to live life the way she wants to.

According to the UNDP, “Being LGBT in Asia: China Country report 2014”. The national law in China only allows transgender people to change their gender on ID cards and household registrations with the difficult procedures which are only accessible to those who have gone through full sex-reassignment surgery (SRS). In addition to that, gender change is not allowed on many official documents, such as university degrees and other education certificates. Many transgender people like Mariko, struggle to access employment and pursuing higher education in China. Acceptance by the society and the government is still a huge deal in a country like China. Let’s look at Tenzin Mariko’s journey on overcoming all the obstacles and being brave enough to come out and be herself and recieving a great response from her community as well. “The Tibetan community has been very accepting of who I am now and respect me for the decision that I have made.” said Mariko.

  1. Considering the fact that you have recently transitioned into a woman. So, most of your life you have lived till now has been as a boy. How has the experience of transitioning been for you?

Answer: I transitioned just two years back and came out in the Tibetan Beauty Pageant. Since I was a little kid, I was really feminine. All the teachers and students in my school would say that I talk and dance like a girl. I had so much femininity inside me that even though I wouldn’t walk or talk like one but when I danced I wanted to move my hips like a girl. Most of my friends were and are still women, I didn’t have many men as my friends in my circle. So, I lived like a boy all through out my life for 17 years. I had no idea about things like transitioning and changing into a woman since I was really young. But, I always had those feminine feelings inside my body and had the urge to be a woman.

2. Going back in time, to your childhood. Has there been any experiences that has remained in your heart till now, any experiences of people bullying you or not being able to accept you.

Answer: Well, some of my very fond childhood memories were going to school and playing with my girl friends, there isn’t any experience that has really remained in my heart. But as our society is a little conservative and people were not able to accept me first when I came out because it never happens in the Tibetan Society. People think that it is something horrible to do, changing your gender and since there is a gender discrimination where families wish to have a boy instead of a girl, just like in the Indian society. But, for me “I didn’t choose to be a boy, but I was born as one.” When I first came out a few people couldn’t accept me, and many were very discouraging of my decision, not everyone but yes a few people did talk behind my back and said things about me. But, I just ignored them and came through that phase in my life. As time is slowly changing, people have changed too and have accepted me for who I am and truly respect me. I am definitely happy about the situation around me now and that people are happy about my decision. I try to encourage everyone through my posts and spread positivity around as well.

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Tenzin in her red stunning dress. Picture Credit- Tenzin Mariko’ Facebook Page

3. Can we talk about your decision to become a monk. What led you to accept Monkhood?

Answer: Monkhood was not my decision, it was my father’s decision. When we were little, my parents got divorced and we got to know after a few years. That’s when my father decided to keep me and my younger brother in a monastery in Darjeeling. He told us that we are go onto being monks and will have to take a train to Darjeeling and change a few buses. For us, it seemed like an adventure as we were just little kids and didn’t know much. As my school friends always went to places and came back and shared their adventures with me. I thought it would be something like that. A vacation indeed. So, since I was in Suja, Bir, Himachal Pradesh because that is where I was born and brought up. We took a bus to Delhi and from Delhi we took a train to Siliguri and from Siliguri to Darjeeling we took a jeep. We didn’t know what was in store for us, we were unaware of the fact that our lives would change completely after becoming monks.

4. How did your family and friends respond to you coming out? Are they accepting of you now? Have you faced any prejudice from those who were close to you?

Answer: My father was not really happy when I wanted to leave my monkhood and become a woman. He wasn’t happy with the idea of me transitioning but over the period of time, my father gradually opened up and accepted me. Now, I would say our relationship is way much better as he has accepted me and he wants me to do good and be successful and happy in whatever I do in life.

Now my family and friends have truly accepted me and are proud to walk with me. My parents are really proud to see me perform, yet there are a few people who still are against me. They aren’t still open-minded about things and accepted me for who I am. I have many friends and I believe if there are hundreds of people ignoring me and hating me, then there are thousands who support me and are constantly there for me, loving me and respect me. Many people say that I inspire them and I will continue to do so. My family always prays for me to have a successful life. And now I really feel like I can face people as ‘Mariko’, who so ever can respect that person. In the Tibetan society, all the NGO’s and the settlements they are very fond of me and know me very well. Everywhere in the Tibetan society, I have a really good name and am known with respect, so I’m extremely happy about that.

5. What has been your experience living in Mcleodganj as a transgender woman?

Answer: So, Mcleodganj is a small town and I came out in Mcleodganj in June 2015 in the Miss Tibet Pageant. I performed in the pageant, More than the fear of coming out, I was really nervous to come out dressed like a woman. Since, I was a monk in Mcleodganj and disrobed from a monk and became a transgender woman in Mcleod. I really didn’t think that I would get a positive response from the people. I was really scared how people were going to react after the show, but Thank God! That people loved my performance and cheered for me and could accept me being a woman. After that I appeared for a several interviews and came out publicly and changed my name to ‘Mariko’.

6. Why did you change your name? Does the name ‘Mariko’ have any special meaning to you?

Answer: I changed my name particularly because I didn’t want to be called Tenzin as it is a very common name for a girl or a boy in the Tibetan community. I wanted to stand out, so that when people talk about me, they would know who I am. The name ‘Mariko’ comes from a Japanese word and it means ‘The Truth’.  I certainly believe that everyone should be truthful and live a truthful life.

7. Who did you first share your gender identity with?

Answer: So, this is something I remember clearly. It was on 15th August 2014, I was in Delhi for a friends wedding. I was still a monk at that time, I wore an orange gown with a wig and high heels and the next day I wore skinny jeans with an orange tank top with my heels. People recorded my dance that night on WeChat and it went viral. When I came back to Dharamshala, everyone asked me if that was really me. I denied and said it wasn’t me as I was still a monk. My brothers knew that it was me and my family got to know about it and told me to disrobe from monk hood and that I couldn’t disrespect being a monk and being a woman simultaneously. The next day I went to the temple dressed up like a women and people stared at me thinking that I’m crazy and wondering what is wrong with me. After that I disrobed and left monk hood. The first person who I spoke to about were my brothers because I share a close bond with them.

9. There is a lot of misconception about the transgender community in India. Many people refer to all transgender people as Hijras. Have you faced any such particular behaviour? How can this misconception be tackled with?

Answer: I have been through that situation where people think that Hijra’s and transgender people are the same but that is not the truth really. They are totally different because transgender people like for example a trans woman like me who wants to be a woman but is a man, where as Hijra’s are castrated from birth and sometimes not even given the choice to choose to live that way. But, transgenders have a choice and they can decide.

The best to tackle these misconceptions and stereotypes, especially for me is to jus ignore these people who think a certain way. I believe ignorance is the key, because I have my own life to live and I cannot always please people. Also, people say what they want to say but you just have to live your life and move forward.

10. So, in some of your Instagram posts you have called yourself as a feminist. What is your stand on feminism or being a feminist? What are some ways or things that has awakened the feminist in you?

Answer: I really love posting positive quotes and my different views on feminism. Feminist to me means when you a woman and

11. You recently spoke at an event on the role of women’s empowerment in the Tibetan community. What was that experience like?

Answer: Women’s empowerment is something that is very close to my heart especially in the Tibetan community. There is always this comparison between the role of men and women, when women are tend to looked down upon and told that they cannot do what men do. But, I believe what men can do women can do as well. I believe in equality. There is no such thing as women being the weaker ones, in fact I believe that women are stronger than men as they give birth to men itself. So, when I got to speak in the event, I spoke about how everyone must respect a woman and it is not only about the beauty that you see on the outside but on the inside too. Each and every woman is different than each other and unique in their own ways and they should be respected for that. I believe that empowering women in my community would mean that women can do so much better and be treated as equal to men.

12. Tenzin, you are a dancer, a designer and a model. How do you plan to take your career forward? What are your dreams, your passions, etc.

Answer: Yes, I am a performer and a dancer. I am not a designer yet but I love to design and do modelling and photo shoots. My biggest dream is to be a Victoria Secrets model, but I don’t think it would be impossible. But, you never know how things can go around as I believe in Karma. Apart from that I really want to develop myself as a make-up artist because that is my ambition and its something that I love to do everyday and it is something that is really important to me. Creating a new look for women and making them look more beautiful. Even if I won’t be able to make it as a Victoria Secrets model, I really want to pursue my career as a make-up artist and hopefully be a well-known successful artist one day.

“I’M NOT WHERE I NEED TO BE…BUT I’M GRATEFUL I’M NOT WHERE I USE TO BE”

-Tenzin Mariko”