Prejudice and progress: a snapshot of LGBT rights in Myanmar

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“We are rejected.” 

That’s how 21-year-old transgender woman Sue Sha Shinn Thant summed up being LGBT in Myanmar – a sentiment that many people across this country are all too familiar with.

“We are verbally teased and even beaten. This scars us emotionally,” she told Weekend.

Sue Sha Shinn Thant and other LGBT friends in Mandalay recently took part in probably the closest thing to a public LGBT rights rally in Myanmar – they dressed in costume and picked up litter around their city.

“LGBT people are the black sheep of the family. So we wanted [to]promote public acceptance of the LGBT community. I felt like a pioneer,” she said.

Small steps like this can have a big impact in a country with such a fraught record of LGBT rights.

Laws of the land

Myanmar is one of many countries where same sex relationships are currently illegal. Section 377 of the colonial-era Penal Code outlaws same sex activities.

And although the law is not strictly enforced, it is punishable with a lengthy stint in prison.

U Aung Myo Min from LGBT rights group Equality Myanmar told Weekend that Section 377 is one of the biggest roadblocks to LGBT equality in Myanmar.

“If homosexual people have sex together here, it’s a crime. So it’s seen as unnatural,” he said.

Additionally, LGBT people – especially transgender people – can be targeted under Section 35c of the Police Act, which allows authorities to stop those with their “faces covered or otherwise disguised, who are unable to give a satisfactory account of himself”.

Mandalay transgender woman Daung Daung said police occasionally harass the LGBT community there after dark using Section 35c as the main pretence.

“Sometimes they make arrests,” she said, adding that people are released after they are made to “remove their dress”.

Sue Sha Shinn Thant added that: “Policemen also use these laws to blackmail us for money”.

Legal adviser of Legal Clinic Myanmar Daw Hla Hla Yee said these laws were at best anachronistic, and at worst, harmful.

“Is it a crime if two people have the same desire? Is this fair?”

“We need to treat LGBT people with dignity. Mistreating LGBT people based on their identity is against the principles of human rights and basic justice,” she said.

‘Bullied and beaten’

These laws appear to influence how the general population in Myanmar views same sex relationships.

“Society looks down on the LGBT community. People mock me and embarrass me in public just because I love a man,” said U Aung Myo Min.

He said this was compounded by certain religious beliefs – as it is “widely accepted that only those who commit adultery in their past life become homosexual as a form of punishment”.

“[And] some people simply say there are no LGBT people in their families or their neighbourhoods. This denial of LGBT existence is another form of discrimination,” U Aung Myo Min said.

It was this environment that Sue Sha Shinn Thant – who first identified as transgender when she was 17 – grew up in.

“If a teenage boy acts in a feminine way due to their gender preference, they will be bullied and beaten by people at school. If they report this to the teacher, the same thing may happen,” she said.

“That’s why most of the LGBT kids are not happy in school. And if they are discriminated against both at home and in school, they end up on the road.”

She said as a result, many LGBT people become beauticians (where there is some level of societal acceptance) or “end up in prostitution as they have no way out”.

“There are some LGBT people who become successful despite hardships and discrimination. But, they are the minority,” Sue Sha Shinn Thant said.

U Aung Myo Min said from his time at Equality Myanmar, he found that members of the lesbian community often have the most negative experiences.

He said he had seen cases where lesbians were sexually assaulted in an effort to “cure them of their homosexuality”.

One lesbian woman that Weekend spoke to on the condition of anonymity said she faced severe workplace discrimination because of her sexual orientation.

“I worked in a company for almost three years. All my peers were promoted except me. When I asked the reason why, they said it was because I did not dress and act like a woman.”

“Most of the time, my family doesn’t discriminate against me. But, when I get into trouble, they tell me it is because – again – I don’t act like a woman.”

Sue Sha Shinn Thant also felt that professional opportunities were more limited because of her sexual orientation.

“Most transgender women [only become]make-up artists or designers. They are not accepted in other professional fields apart from these two. Due to discrimination in society and fewer job opportunities, LGBT people often have to work much harder than straight people.”

Small steps

But there have been some tentative steps forward.

Over the past few years, LGBT beauty pageants have become more popular and LGBT voices are being more widely publicised, especially on World AIDS Day and the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

“This year we celebrated International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia in a shopping centre, last year it was in People’s Park. In the past, it was difficult to get permission and it was often rejected with the reason of ‘opposing Myanmar traditional culture’,” one of the event organisers told Weekend.

And Tin Ko Ko and Myo Min Htet made international headlines in 2014 when they celebrated 10 years of living together by holding Myanmar’s first public LBGT wedding.

Another gay couple did the same in Bago Region last year.

Additionally, there has been an increasing number of LGBT arts and social events such as the &PROUD film festival – at a time when every opportunity to become more visible is a victory of sorts.

So despite ongoing difficulties, Sue Sha Shinn Thant is determined to stay positive.

“There are LGBT people who are standing tall. We all need to do the same. If we speak out, the opinions of other people will change.”

“Being LGBT is not a problem for our society. If we all come together, we can make an even more beautiful society.”

Myanmar Times

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