Trans in Exile: My Journey from Tibetan Monk to Trans Woman

By Tenzin Mariko and Natasha Khullar Relph

The story of the first Tibetan Buddhist monk in history to have publicly come out as a trans woman.

Chapter 1

When you look at me, you don’t see me.

This is not your fault. You’re not supposed to see me. That is the purpose ofour attire, for us all to look the same and be the same, a solid sea of red that you can look through and look past, but not look at. When you look at me, you don’t see an individual, but a representation. You see the manifestation of the image in your own head. You see me as you’ve been told to see me.

This is not your fault.

You don’t see me because we’re not meant to be seen.


The pre-dawn moonlight drops over the empty streets of McLeod Ganj, or Upper Dharamshala as it is sometimes known, washing it in a silver light that makes it feel not quite earthly. The snow-covered mountains twinkle like diamonds in the distance, and the Himalayan cedars reach up to the sky as the prayer flags tied around them flap in the wind. We are 6,800 feet above sea level.

Soon the shutters of the shops will open, the metallic din ripping through the stillness, little murmuring voices turning loud, deafening. In the summer, they come from neighbouring towns, from the rest of India, from the rest of the world. Little Tibet, it’s called, or Little Lhasa, this town where I now live. It’s a tourist destination,a tiny blip on the map that people come to visit from thousands of miles away. They drive their cars up the winding roads but there is little parking, and so they rent motorbikes or scooters for the day. They stop at the roadside cafes and have dumplings or thukpa for breakfast. They record videos, click photos of homes that have Tibetan flags flying proudly on the terraces. They come to see the scenery, these tourists. They come to see the temples; they come to see the Dalai Lama. And they come to see us, our monasteries, our routines, our red robes.

I wore one of those red robes years ago, as we walked down the hilltop in groups, an anonymous monk that blended in with all the others. We weren’t people to the visitors who gawked at us, sometimes open-mouthed. We were monks. I understand now that there’s a difference. People have desires, families, emotions. Monks don’t. We’re required to give it all up. Renounce. Restrain. Relinquish.

I arrived at the monastery when I was nine years old. Did I have any dreams before then? I must have. But not after. Never after. Monks don’t dream. What would be the point?

If you’d seen me then, that year when I was sixteen, wrapped in red and lost among the sea of Tibetan faces around me, you’d see me just as you saw the rest of them. Crimson robes, shaved head, prayer beads in hand. I recited my prayers faithfully, attended daily teachings at the temple, and woke up before dawn. I was intimately familiar with the silver light of daybreak. The silence, it can be peaceful.

It can be piercing, too.

How can you be trained in a life of oneness and still feel so incredibly different? They looked like me; I looked like them. You wouldn’t have been able to tell us apart.

Yet, I had a secret they didn’t. Something that could wreck my entire life, a certainty I couldn’t afford to let out.

I enjoyed dressing up as a girl.

It wasn’t a question of identity, not then. My identity wasn’t, and had never been, a question: I was a monk. I’d been a monk since I was nine years old and I believed I’d be a monk until the day I died. I never doubted this, never questioned it. It wasn’t ever a choice I had, and it wasn’t something I’d ever worried about.

I thought of my robes as a uniform for a job I must do. Some women wore pencil skirts or pantsuits, others robes; each piece of clothing enabling them to do the task entrusted to them. And later, at night, when their work was done and they were alone, they could change into something more comfortable. A cotton dress, a linen jumpsuit, satin pyjamas. That’s how I thought about it then.

Some women took off their bras at the end of a long day. I just happened to put mine on.

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