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LGBTQ+ in Myanmar – A sin from a former life?

LGBTQ+ in Myanmar – A sin from a former life?

It all depends on the throwing technique. Turning around one’s own axis and then throwing it out of the shoulder using the whole body weight. And then the purse flies into the loud cheering audience, disappearing between the people. Just a few meters away from it, a whistle marks the start signal. The participants run towards the finish line more or less safely on spectacularly high heels. These are snapshots of the Drag Queen Olympics. But not at gay pride in Berlin or Amsterdam, but in Yangon, Myanmar. The country, which is also known colloquially as Burma and is still one of the most conservative in Southeast Asia, is also a country where life is anything but easy for LGBTQ+ people. Couple of Men reporter Sarah was traveling in the Asian country as a single female traveler and could get an idea of about the LGBTQ+ community in Myanmar. Georgia, Lebanon, and Russia, she is now analyzing how it is to be gay in Myanmar and other LGBTQ+ topics for our blog Couple of Men.

Written by Sarah Tekath
Translated by Karl Krause

Where to be Gay?

Gay in Myanmar Schwul in Myanmar LGBTQ+ Schwul in Myanmar Gay in Myanmar, also known as Birma in Asia
Gay in Myanmar, also known as Birma in Asia

Gay in Myanmar: Drag Queen Olympics, Yangon Pride & Miss Myanmar

However, there was no intervention by the police or the military, as the government has so far paid little attention to LGBTQ +. The principle seems to apply here that the community is not yet large enough to really be seen as a threat to the existing state of affairs. Although there were already 6,000 participants on the first day of the Drag Queen Olympics as part of the Yagon Pride.

In December 2019, Burmese participant Swe Zin Htet also made headlines after she won the title of Miss Universe when she announced publicly that she was a lesbian. In Myanmar, however, the report almost went unheard, as it overlapped with the start of the trial against Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi at the International Court of War in The Hague in the Netherlands. The Gambia had sued the head of state for genocide against the Rohingya.

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Shadow laws and acts against nature

Due to British colonial rule, the legal situation in Myanmar still defines same-sex sex according to paragraph 377 as an unnatural act. Until recently the same historical law applied in India before the paragraph was abolished. In Myanmar, the situation is further aggravated by Sections 35b and 35c of the Police Act, known as the so-called shadow laws. These stipulate that people who are on the street between 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. firstly have an acceptable reason for this, and secondly they have to show their identity clearly. So, that means, for example, no ‘masking’ by, for example, make-up. The local police often take this legal situation as an opportunity to pick up gays or, in particular, trans women. To avoid a prison sentence (maximum up to 10 years) involving violence and sexual abuse during detention, as well as public exposure, extensive bribes are required.

Aung Myo Min, founder of the NGO Equality Myanmar, explains: “Police officers use members of the LGBTQ+ community like ATMs. When you enter PIN code 377, the money comes out. “

Gay in Myanmar Schwul in Myanmar & Proud Regenbogenfahnen auf Booten © Violaine Beix, Colors Rainbow
&Proud rainbow flag with victory sign © Violaine Beix, Colors Rainbow

One of the first openly gay human rights activists

The human rights and LGBTQ+ activists left Myanmar in 1988 for security reasons and in 2000 founded the organization Equality Myanmar in political exile in Thailand. It was only in 2014 that he could return to his home country and resume political activism for democracy and human rights. “LGBT rights are human rights,” explains Aung Myo Min, which is why the commitment to the LGBTQ+ community is only one of the many areas of application for Equality Myanmar. The NGO also focuses on women’s rights and religious minorities, such as the Rohingya. In addition to the already established program that was created in Thailand, new projects should also be created in Myanmar itself – in cooperation with the local community. Therefore, Colors Rainbow was founded as a sub-program of Equality Myanmar in 2013. The following year &PROUD (read: and proud) was also created with the support of a group of young activists as well as the Myanmar LGBT Rights Network, which now forms their organizations. Equality Myanmar currently has 43 employees with offices in the cities of Yangon and Mandalay.

First gay wedding party in Myanmar in 2014

The ‘Train the trainer’ support program is offered annually, as part of which members of the local community are trained as trainers and consultants for human and LGBT rights. The team currently comprises 250 trainers in their support program.

“Because of my political point of view, I used to have a lot of difficulties – since I was already open about my sexuality,” recalls Aung Myo Min. “Because of my position for freedom of religion and expression, as well as gender and LGBT rights, I often received threats from the community of fundamentalist Buddhists. Fortunately, I managed to get through this.”

Gay in Myanmar Schwul in Myanmar & Proud Regenbogenfahnen auf Booten © Violaine Beix, Colors Rainbow
&Proud rainbow flags on boats in Myanmar © Violaine Beix, Colors Rainbow

Gay in Myanmar: Lack of acceptance in society

According to the activist, the current legal situation in Myanmar is making it difficult for human rights in general, and the rights of religious minorities, women, and LGBT in particular, to develop positively. This includes, for example, the nationwide media law, which stands in the way of freedom of expression. Many human rights defenders have experienced legal prosecution for critical statements against the government on social media.

However, resistance is not only evident for the country leadership, but also in society itself, explains the founder of Equality Myanmar. Anyone considering a public coming-out will encounter a culture that is not informed about sexual diversity either in school or in the media. Outing goes together with incomprehension, discrimination, blackmailing, and disadvantages at work and normal life, which is why many homosexuals choose to either run away from home (leaving their country) or live a socially accepted family life against their identity. Living out and publicly showing one’s own homosexuality is also associated with restrictions on the choice of profession. “Employment in a public office or in the government is completely impossible. Instead, gays mostly find themselves in ‘suitable’ jobs, such as make-up artists or hairdressers,” reports Aung Myo Min.

Gay in Myanmar Schwul in Myanmar Rainbow Flag waving over Myanmar © Violaine Beix, Colors Rainbow
Rainbow Flag waving over Myanmar © Violaine Beix, Colors Rainbow

It was also impossible for a gay man to become a monk. “Buddhists believe that evil spirits used to try to sneak into monasteries and get hold of the monks. Therefore, when entering a monastery, the question was asked: ‘Are you a real person?’ Today, however, this control is translated as ‘Are you a real man?’, which leads to excluding homosexuals.

According to Aung Myo Ming, the misinterpretation might come from the monks themselves. It is a typical belief of many that homosexuality comes as a punishment for someone for sins in a previous life. This would be passed on to the community of believers in sermons. “Meanwhile, some monks are brave enough to publicly oppose this type of thinking. But there are only a few,” he knows.

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Training for teachers and companies

Even if sexual education and the subject of different sexual orientations are not part of the curriculum in Burmese schools, teachers are often confronted with the topic. This is especially the case when trans people are in the class and are subject to discrimination. It is not uncommon for teachers to prohibit students who ‘acted gay or lesbian’ from doing this to teach them a different way of life, according to Aung Myo Min. “There is often an attitude that the child or adolescent can change their behavior if they want to. If the will is not strong enough, the punishments and discrimination are also deserved.

But there is also empathy, believes Hla Myat Tun, Deputy Director of Colors Rainbow, the organization that emerged from Equality Myanmar in 2015 and now has 24 employees. Many teachers have personal experiences of bullying in their classes and would like to intervene and support their students, but do not know how to do it. Therefore, the organization is actively addressing schools to offer training in LGBT rights and sexual identities. At the same time, it also shows that it is uncomfortable for some teachers to speak explicitly about sexuality, which in turn only makes it clearer how very well-founded training and the process of rethinking are also necessary by the Ministry of Education.

Gay in Myanmar Schwul in Myanmar & Proud Rainbow Pride Event © Violaine Beix, Colors Rainbow
&Proud rainbow pride event © Violaine Beix, Colors Rainbow

Create a strong LGBTQ+ community

Another goal is to create a community that is strong and aware of its rights, says Violaine Beix, Development Manager at Colors Rainbow. “Self-confidence is often lacking. People are rejected by their families, bullied at school, have fewer chances in the job market, and therefore do not know that they can live a normal life, have the same rights, and can be who they really are. Through our work, we hope to create a community that is strong and well-prepared to support the reform of the law when everyone is ready.”

Myanmar does not have any anti-discrimination laws, so Colors Rainbow cannot do anything legally, but the organization offers training courses on rights and anti-discrimination, which companies perceive, for example. However, it is often necessary to start with basic knowledge, for example, to explain that sexual orientation is not a choice. The length of the workshops varies from a few hours to several days depending on the company. The focus is on the importance of LGBT and the benefits of diversity in the workplace. The participants often show a great willingness to understand, accept, and adapt their behavior, says Violaine Beix.

Gay in Myanmar Schwul in Myanmar Rainbow Flag during Pride in Myanmar © Violaine Beix, Colors Rainbow
Rainbow Flag during Pride in Myanmar © Violaine Beix, Colors Rainbow

Even if the younger generation does come into contact with LGBTQ + topics using social media and international films, Hla Myat Tun also believes in the tolerance of the older generation. “Older family members know that if their grandchild is a transgender person, they will be subjected to bullying at school and would like to spare him/her that.”

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Future: Understanding and awareness are growing in society

Something is happening in Myanmar favoring the LGBT community. Aung Myo Min from Equality Myanmar also believes the group is getting stronger. “When I came out, there was no support at all. No one I could have spoken to. I founded this organization because I didn’t want other people to have to experience the same.” The LGBTQ+ movement is now much better organized and is gradually becoming aware of its strength. This is also thanks to the growing influence of social media and international films since Myanmar opened in 2010. The activism of members of the LGBT community in the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS education is also shifting the general reception of society from gays as spreaders of the disease to their combatants.

Hla Myat Tun from Colors Rainbow also talks about greater visibility for the LGBT community. “Our movement is visibly getting stronger.” For example, through a film festival organized by the LGBT-NGO &PROUD and whose filmmakers are also trained in workshops, even if the event was not allowed to take place in public places at first and each contribution had to undergo a censorship control. Colors Rainbow recorded 6,000 and 7,000 visitors. Also, a magazine that is being published regularly by Colors Rainbow for young adults aiming to increase the visibility of the LGBT community. This is done, for example, by featuring portraits of local, successful LGBTQ+ people who are to serve as role models.

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Gay in Myanmar: A lot depends on future elections

At the same time, the NGO is also working with the government to adjust the paragraphs that discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. “It is even well-received, we are supported by different people,” says Violaine Beix, but unfortunately, it seems that people are not there yet. The problem is not yet given enough importance because many do not realize how difficult daily life for LGBT people in Myanmar can be. A lot depends on future elections. Nevertheless, it was time to raise awareness and gain support from people outside the LGBT community.

The next Yangon Pride will take place in January 2020. Miss Myanmar Swe Zin Htet and her girlfriend, a well-known Burmese singer, are also invited to act as special guests and role models for all those who have not yet had the courage to stand up for what they really are.

LGBTQ+ and gay travelers in Myanmar

While lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, and queer locals continue to face persecution and discrimination, there are clear signs of relaxation. LGBTQ+ travelers can witness Myanmar’s development towards homosexuals, which is just beginning. However, this is not so easy for transgender people who are also exposed to harassment and sexual assault by the police and whose gender identity is not recognized by the state. Nevertheless, local LGBT activists can confirm a climate of increasing social acceptance and tolerance towards LGBT people. It is therefore important for LGBTQ+ travelers to keep an eye on their immediate surroundings and, if necessary, to refrain from showing public affection. No incidents have been reported to date that any anti-LGBTQ+ laws have been applied to lesbian, gay, trans, or queer travelers based on their sexual orientation.

Myanmar Travel Planning: Wikipedia LGBT rights in Myanmar

Photo Source: Violaine Beix | Pixabay | Unsplash
Information Source: Colors Rainbow | Wikipedia

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