On the night of July 6, a group of men was hanging out near the luxurious Sedona Hotel, opposite Mandalay’s old royal palace, a well-known meeting point for the local gay community. Suddenly, the police arrived, and the 12 men were arrested for “shouting and disturbing the public”, according to police officer Soe Nyein, who claimed that cross-dressing men are known to rob unsuspecting victims.
Win Min, a 19-year-old man, who asked for his name to be changed for safety reasons, was among those detained. He says he was arrested for dressing as a woman; something prohibited by a British colonial-era law that bans people from altering their appearance. In a coffee shop, Win Min speaks calmly, but can barely mask the fear instilled in him when he and his friends were beaten and humiliated by police “to correct their behaviour”. All of the men were released without charge later that night.
Such incidents are not new in a country where homosexuality is technically illegal due to a vaguely worded law introduced by the British that forbids “unnatural sex acts”, which no government has moved to abolish since Myanmar gained independence in 1948. Yet, just a few days after their arrest, the detained men in Mandalay did something that had no precedent in the country: Instead of being cowed and keeping silent, as they had been told to by the police, they decided to speak out, and took part in a press conference to denounce the abuses they had endured.
Myanmar is undergoing a process of political transition towards what the generals previously in power termed a “disciplined democracy”. This transition has brought the relaxing of media censorship, the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the mushrooming of civil society organisations that were clandestine during almost five decades of military dictatorship. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community is also mobilising, and there is now an incipient movement to claim equal rights.
Perhaps Myanmar’s most famous LGBT rights advocate is Aung Myo Min, a 47-year-old man born in Moulmein, the capital of Mon state. Aung Myo Min took part in the 1988 uprising against military rule and was only able to return to the country last year after being exiled for nearly a quarter of a century for his political activism. Since his return, Aung Myo Min has founded Equality Myanmar, an organisation with offices in Yangon and Mandalay.
The fact that the men detained in Mandalay decided to speak out indicates that something is changing within Myanmar’s LGBT community. “I see the empowerment [going from] from zero to hero, from nothing to something. Even if we face legal failure against the police, these kinds of things make everyone more motivated and encourage them to stand up, ” says Aung Myo Min.
However, Myanmar’s LGBT community has to tackle more than just the police and judicial system. The country is predominantly Buddhist, and religion underpins a deeply conservative mentality. According to Aung Myo Min, many Buddhists regard LGBT people as “strange creatures” who are being punished in their present lives for sins committed during previous incarnations.
Social pressure can reach boiling point even within the family unit. Zin Min Htun, a 32-year-old make-up artist from Mandalay who prefers to be addressed by his feminine persona, Ma Pwint, knows this all too well. When Ma Pwint was 21 and studying at university, he decided to come out during a festival devoted to the nats – spirits worshipped, and at times feared, in Myanmar. He went to the festival dressed as a female nat, where his father found him, took him home and beat him for hours before locking him in a room for a week.
After that ordeal, Ma Pwint went to live in a different city as a heterosexual man. After three years of living a lie, he moved to Mandalay and finally came out. He now lives with his parents – an ageing conservative couple that cannot bring themselves to accept his homosexuality – yet is one of the best-known faces on the local gay scene and regularly dances at nat festivals across the country.
Life is no easier for lesbian women. “Harry”, a 17-year-old student from Mandalay who volunteers at CAN, a local NGO that promotes LGBT rights, also faces challenges at home. Her father, a Buddhist taxi driver, does not accept her sexuality. Her Muslim mother and grandmother accept it only reluctantly; her mother finds contentment in the fact she won’t fall pregnant, while her grandmother believes it is just a phase that will pass.
However, Harry has no doubt about her sexual orientation. A thoughtful and mature tomboy, she has always “felt ridiculous” dressing as a girl and has found freedom in dressing as a boy since she was a young child. She loves to play football, a sport usually reserved for men in Myanmar, and claims that she only feels at home in the CAN headquarters. “It’s like a second family,” she says, adding that she finds a level of respect there that she rarely finds anywhere else.
Sometimes the people who know Harry insult her because of her boyish appearance, “but the people who don’t know me think I am a boy”, she says, smiling mischievously. In any case, she believes that lesbians are slightly less discriminated against in Myanmar because many people believe that tomboys will go on to be men – who are widely regarded as superior to women – in their next reincarnation.
In such an environment, it is unsurprising that some prefer to keep their true sexuality a secret from their families. One such person is “TJ”, a 19-year-old boy who left his home village in Magwe Division two years ago to study English in Mandalay. After his first relationship with a man came to an end ten months ago, he met another suitor from Yangon on the internet. They fell in love and are now saving as much money as they can to meet face to face some day. When TJ feels the need to let off some steam, he says he goes to Mandalay Hill, a complex of Buddhist temples overlooking the city, and shouts to the wind: “Chit Tal! Chit Tal!” (“I love you! I love you!”) to his virtual boyfriend.
TJ’s friends in Mandalay know about his sexual orientation and support him, but he has not yet come out to his family. “I know my parents will understand me when they find out, because they love me so much,” he says in a soft voice. “But I will wait until they ask me to tell them.”
Not all LGBT people in Myanmar lead anonymous lives. Pauk Pauk, dubbed the “fairy godmother” by her closest friends, is one of the most famous fashion designers in Myanmar. Born into the body of a man 42 years ago, her work is now in demand by actors, pop stars and members of high society. But her path to success has not been easy. It began in the city of Mogok, famous for its ruby mines, where her mother ran a hairdressing business and where Pauk Pauk learnt the ropes of the beauty industry. She then shot to stardom in Yangon and Mandalay before setting her sights on Italy’s fashion capital of Milan, where she studied fashion design.
Pauk Pauk remembers her years in Italy fondly. She says that although adapting to a different culture was tough in the beginning, it became immensely rewarding. Throughout her life, Pauk Pauk has suffered insults for being different, as well as the threat of sexual harassment due to the widely held assumption that transgender individuals are promiscuous. Her love life has been plagued by disappointment too, but today she is in love with an actor from Yangon who accepts her for who she is. “I’ve always felt like a woman, a Myanmar woman who has never sought easy sex, but rather a relationship of love,” says Pauk Pauk.
Myanmar may not yet exhibit the relative tolerance shown towards LGBT people in neighbouring Thailand, but incidents such as the arrest in Mandalay have made their way into the media and are beginning to generate some debate. Issues such as same-sex marriage might not be high on the government’s agenda yet, but there are people who are ready and willing to bring them to the table. “I don’t know about others, but I’m ready for that. I would say that the debate should be activated,” Aung Myo Min says with characteristically cautious optimism.
In the meantime, LGBT Myanmar live their lives struggling to reconcile their own identities in an environment where role models and structured support are scarce. They are striving to find their way in a secluded world; a world that struggles to find a place for those it still regards as “strange creatures”.