Mon, Apr 18, 2011 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Gays in Myanmar seeking Thai-style acceptance


A gay man styles the hair of a customer at a beauty salon in Yangon, Myanmar, on April 10.

Photo: AFP

Tin Soe was just four when he realized he was different to other boys in his neighborhood, but growing up in conservative and army-ruled Myanmar he struggled to be accepted as gay by his relatives.

“My granddad’s sister said that if I became a monk my sexuality would change. So I was a monk for three months, but my sexuality never changed,” the 30-year-old said, asking for his real name to be withheld.

A repressive mix of totalitarian politics, religious views and reserved social mores has kept many gay people in the closet in Myanmar.

Gay men have developed their own language as a “gaylingual” code to both signify and conceal their sexuality, said Tin Soe, who now works on HIV/AIDs prevention in Yangon.

“We want to be secret and we don’t want to let other people know what we are saying. We twist the pronunciation,” he said.

It’s a world away from Thailand, where a lively gay and transsexual scene is a largely accepted part of society, which — like Myanmar — is mainly Buddhist.

“More Burmese are traveling to Thailand and see things there,” a 34-year-old working in Myanmar’s tourism industry said. “But here gays are still looked down on, in a certain category.”

Homosexuality is often linked to local religious beliefs about karma in Myanmar, Tin Soe said.

Many believe “we’re gay because we did something in a past life, that in a past life I committed adultery or raped a woman, but I don’t believe in that,” he said.

“It’s not like Iran where they are killed, but gays are a strange story in this country,” he said.

Traditionally, the only area where non-heterosexuality has been openly embraced is the realm of nat, or spirit worship, a form of animism that is intertwined with Buddhist beliefs.

Flamboyant and effeminate spirit mediums take center stage at popular nat festivals throughout the year, but their acceptance has also served to reinforce certain stereotypes of gay people.

Same-sex relations are technically criminalized by a colonial penal code, and while this is no longer strictly enforced, activists say it is still used by authorities to discriminate and extort.

“They use it as an excuse to make money and harass people, but they don’t bring the cases to court,” said Aung Myo Min, an openly gay Burmese exile and director of the Thailand-based Human Rights Education Institute of Burma.

He said there were numerous instances of sexual violence and humiliation of gay people in public.

“Many cases are not reported because the victims keep silent out of shame and fear of repercussions,” he said.

In Myanmar, broaching any kind of anti-discrimination or human rights issue is hugely sensitive.

“The man who starts to ask for rights in the gay community will be sent to prison,” a Yangon-based HIV/AIDS activist in his 50s said.

The Internet offers a forum for gay men to meet, deemed safer than public cruising: Tin Soe met his boyfriend on Facebook, for example, but he said many were afraid to put their photos on gay Web sites.

In light of such discretion, raising public health awareness isn’t easy.

In some areas, such as the big cities of Yangon and Mandalay, as many as 29 percent of men having sex with men are HIV positive, according to a report last year by the Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS.

“We have a lot of activists in this country, but we can’t campaign very openly. We will have a workshop in a hotel, but without big posters and loudspeakers. We do it low profile,” Tin Soe said.

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