“Do you have husband?, treatment ” a porter asked me. By this point, I was very tired of this question. In Nepal’s urban areas, most locals are familiar enough with Westerners to refrain from asking such direct personal questions. But in rural areas like the Himalayan mountain villages where we had been trekking for the past week, asking about your marital status is a matter of course within the first few minutes of meeting someone.
After four hours death-marching uphill through the steepest section of the Langtang trek, I was too exhausted to launch into yet another complicated explanation of my relationship status. So ignoring Lisa’s intense glares at me, I replied simply “no” and excused myself from the conversation by going to refill my water bottle.
But to my dismay, this was not the end of it. The porter followed me to the water pipe and continued with his interrogation of my personal details. “How old are you?,” he asked. Thoroughly annoyed by this point, I huffed back “I’m 30.” His eyes brightened and he sidled closer to me, saying “Oh, 30 years old? We’ll, I’m 36.” Good for you, I thought silently, now please leave me alone. The porter looked at me intently and asked, “Do you like children?” Oh my god. Was this guy trying to size up my potential as a wife? Shit. I should have just said I was married.
I’d like to think that my failure in this instance to stand up for my relationship with Lisa was an anomaly. Throughout the past five months of travels I have tried to always be transparent about our sexuality, and I’ve never been ashamed to make the “one double bed” request at hotels. But how do you explain the concept of homosexuality to peasant farmers in the Himalayan countryside, nearly all of whom have little access to education, live with no electricity or running water, and spend much of their free time collecting yak dung for fuel.
In contrast, Lisa approaches the challenge with much more gusto. On our first trek through the Annapurnas, I overheard her launching into “The Gay Speech” with a group of wide-eyed high-school students from Kathmandu on a field trip. In Patan while getting a haircut, she spent a half hour explaining gay life to an incredulous hairdresser who couldn’t believe that such a phenomenon also occurred in her own country until Lisa started whipping out photos of Nepalese Supergays that we had interviewed.
After the porter incident, I vowed to do better. My opportunity to redeem myself came soon enough. I was taking a break on a sunny rock (Lisa had bounded on ahead to who knows where) when a guide from a Chinese trekking party approached my resting spot and started chatting. Predictability, the husband question came up within the first minute.
“You know how women marry men, right?,” I began. “Well in some cases, women also marry women, and men also marry men.” His attitude remained unchanged at this statement, so I pressed on. “So you see, I am getting married, but to a woman,” I said. “And she’s up there, somewhere,” I added, pointing to the trail ahead.
The guide just looked at me and nodded, his expression still unchanged. “Do you understand?,” I asked. “Yes, yes,” he replied. I paused and waited for a reaction, perhaps shock, or curiosity, or even indignation. But instead, the guide changed the subject and began opining about the weather, as if what I had said was completely ordinary.
The same thing more or less happened during the rest of the trek. A guide, porter, or tea house owner would ask us about our marital status, and we would give “The Gay Speech” in various renditions. And the questioning party would simply nod and move onto the next subject without asking anything further.
Back in Kathmandu, we related our experiences with some Westerners who had lived in Nepal for a longer time. After much thought, we concluded that the ‘non-reaction’ that we received from the villagers was partly due to our foreign status, partly due to the long-standing Nepalese attitude of tolerance towards all people, and partly due to their natural shyness to talk about anything concerning sex or sexuality.
I don’t know what kind of impression we left with these villagers and I don’t know whether we were the first lesbian couple to have come out to them, but I do know for certain that we will not be the last gay people they will encounter in their mountains. Our three weeks in the Himalayas reminded us that on this trip, we are constantly coming out to people – from hotel owners and tour guides to shopkeepers and restaurant servers to fellow travelers from around the world. Sometimes it gets tiring, but I remind myself that with each coming out, we have the opportunity to positively shape people’s perceptions about the queer community.
So go ahead, ask me whether or not I have a husband. I’ve got my answer ready.