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Queer politics and Tibet

Tenzin Mingyur Paldron

Monday 10 October 2011

Headlines of the current decade reflect significant interest toward various kinds of emancipatory politics and their effects, with a particular gravitation toward LGBTQ rights and democratization in non-Western nations. An interesting feature emerges when contrasting the notions of LGBTQ rights and democratic values– the latter represents a majority-rule paradigm, while the former calls for minority rights. This difference of priority (on the needs or beliefs of the majority versus a minority) has not detracted from both these ideas falling under a picture of “civilization” imagined by many people, inside and outside the West. But what paths are taken to reach these goals, and what kinds of practices (and accidents) are utilized?

It is with these last questions in mind that the Western world has been fixated on news about popular revolts (outside the West), marriage equality and homophobia, all of which are often absorbed into an image of human rights seemingly without boundaries. But why would we want boundaries for human rights? Conceiving of a “limit” to human rights seems counter-productive if not downright unethical, the stance taken by dictators and authoritarian regimes. However, I ask this question from the perception of “human rights” as meaning something collective and manifold, rather than unitary and unvaried. When there are multiple human rights issues at stake in the same scenario, how should each interest proceed when they appear to be in conflict? I would like to argue that a group concerned with equality of rights (and conditions) is not inherently at odds with another group, but only appears so when there is a lack of thoughtfulness by communities for that figure they are supposedly defending—the human person, in all its complexity and depth. It is for this reason we find ourselves advocating so many rights, because there are so many things that make us who we are.

I find an especially compelling lesson of the potential blind spots of human rights in the recent investment made by LGBT Capital in Fridae, the leading LGBT news and social networking website in Asia whose catchphrase is “empowering gay Asia,” and is based in Hong Kong. LGBT Capital describes itself as the world’s first corporate advisory and investment firm focused on the LBGT consumer sector, “dedicated to furthering LGBT freedoms globally.” According to the press release, LGBT Capital plans to “develop its impact investment philosophy by combining a commercial business with support for the LGBT community, particularly in the developing markets in Asia” by way of this “strategic alliance.”

As promising as such a partnership may be for the project of international LGBTQ rights, as a reader of Fridae and member of the LGBTQ as well as the Asian community, I have some concerns. “Gay In Lhasa,” is a 2007 article by Fridae on the subject of gay Tibetans. In my first encounter with this article, I was frustrated by its problematic framing, which I felt sure would spread over the years, and the long-term political consequences of such framing. Now, reading the press release, I feel the problems first made visible in the article can no longer be ignored, as they are problems not only for the subject of LGBTQ rights and Tibetan rights, but for the larger conversation of political or “human” rights that so many have wrapped up the future of the world with.

The positive effect of the article of spotlighting gay Tibetans (something which, as a queer-identified transgender Tibetan, I can certainly appreciate) is counter-balanced not only by an alarming disregard for the colonialist occupation of Tibet as an important factor impacting the experience of gay Tibetans, but also a surprising assumption the author makes about the difficulties of gay Tibetans, without actually asking them directly what their difficulties might be. The writer opens the article with questioning the gay-friendliness of the Dalai Lama, and transitions into the body of the article by predicting, “…he might be a tad unhappy then, to learn that Lhasa…now has a small yet flourishing queer scene.”

I would not be disturbed by a frank and sincere discussion of the Dalai Lama’s remarks on gay rights, which have been numerous and varied. But instead, the correspondent emphasizes the Dalai Lama’s supposed homophobic attitude toward his own people, while ignoring that which must trouble queer Tibetans just as much as homophobia – the occupation of their homeland. That she presumes the opinion of queer Tibetans on the Dalai Lama without consulting them reveals a profound moment of disconnect for the article – that it does not appear to be written with the idea that there might be gay Tibetans among Fridae’s audience. For in reading through the article, it feels like a “looking in from the outside” perspective, one that reports on what “gay Tibet” might look like, without feeling responsible to readers in the same way another article on Asian gays might be. If Fridae is an Asian organization committed to “empowering gay Asia,” doesn’t that imply self-empowerment? In that case, something is missing from the tone of the article.

As Fridae announces its intention to “expand its potential as an LGBT social networking website and media platform which is truly Asian and which empowers and interacts with the Asian LGBT community,” I hope that they do not ignore the empowerment sought by LGBTQ Tibetans– an exercise of human rights that necessarily span both the personal and political.

P.S.

Tenzin Mingyur Paldron is a queer, transgender Tibetan PhD student at UC Berkeley’s Rhetoric department, where he is researching postcolonial Tibet and queer theory. He is a recipient of the Dalai Lama Fellowship, an award given by the Dalai Lama Trust to fifteen Tibetan graduate students for the first time this year.

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