“I know some people like ‘they’, but I don’t mind. You can use ‘he’ or ‘she’,” Htike Myat Kalyar Khin Khin Win says earnestly in English, showing an impressive grip of foreign pronouns, when I ask how she wants to be referred to in this article.
Htike Myat is a 23-year-old transgender Burmese entrepreneur, with an online company which makes underwear for tomboys. She also prints t-shirts with slogans like the one she is wearing, which proclaims “Gay is OK” in big silver letters.
“Gender and sexuality should not be defined by society, but the feeling inside,” she says, in Burmese now, brushing away concerns about labels.
We are talking in the grounds of the French Institute in Yangon, where Burma’s second ever Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Film Festival has just wrapped up. There are disco balls in the portaloos, free condoms and a pumping Euro-trash soundtrack.
Transgender women in exquisite ethnic dress wander around, some eating dinner out of traditional Burmese silver lunchboxes.
But it is a different story outside the French Institute’s walls.
“Out there, they don’t know what this festival is, and they don’t know about LGBT rights,” says Htike Myat, gesturing to the busy road beyond the gates.
Homosexuality is still officially illegal in Burma, (the country also known as Myanmar), banned under Section 377, a relic of British colonial law. Equality groups report routine discrimination, particularly on behalf of transgender people and gay women, and even late-night arrests of openly gay men. In 2013, a dozen gay and transgender people in Mandalay were stripped, beaten and humiliated by police who said they were doing a “public service” by arresting them.
The festival organisers admit that holding the event on what is effectively French government land meant that they got around the problem of having censors comb over the content of their films.
“A cultural event is easier to do here, it’s not like a Pride march, which would be more difficult,” says Billy Stewart, one of the co-organisers of the festival. Part of the programme also involves training young local filmmakers, holding discussions on LGBT rights and hosting outreach events in schools and colleges.
His Burmese colleague Hla Myat Tun, from equality organisation Colors Rainbow, says education is key for a society which is traditionally very private about sex.
“In the past here, the media, articles, adverts were very offensive to LGBT people,” he says. “People dared not come out. Ten years ago, there were like 5 to ten gay guys. Now, there are lots of proud and out gay people.”
Things are certainly changing in Burma, and not just for the LGBT community. On Monday, human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi triumphantly led her MPs into parliament to begin their term as the country’s first democratically elected government for decades.
“The country is beginning to open up; there is a chance to have better human rights,” says Hla Myat Tun. “Human rights are LGBT rights. LGBT rights will never be left behind. We are all equal.”
The festival films reflected this message, and perhaps none more so than Soul Mates, a short film directed by Lei Lei Aye. It follows the love-story of U Win Ngwe and Daw Ngwe Than, two 40-year olds from central Burma who have been together for 15 years and who still talk about each other with eyes shining with affection.
The film shows the couple’s day-to-day lives, recalls their courtship, and lingers on their gentle supervision of their niece and nephew.
So far, so traditional: but there’s a difference. Both Daw Ngwe Than and U Win Ngwe, referred to by his partner affectionately as “Mr Stout”, are biologically female.
“My mother did not like it at first because it was a woman and a woman,” Daw Ngwe Than tells The Telegraph. “But she saw our love and accepted us, so all my nine siblings accepted us too. They all see that we love each other so much that we can stand anything.”
Many more people know their story now, and the pair giggle as they say they are now something like celebrities in their village.
“I thought only of her, and was afraid for her dignity,” says ‘Mr Stout’, who is referred to as ‘he’ throughout the film. “Will it harm her?”
And although there have been tough times, since the film the pair say they have been greeted with acceptance. Director Lei Lei Aye hopes that this acceptance can spread more widely, despite societal and even religious traditions. Burma is a majority Buddhist country, and she says some Buddhist texts describe same-sex relationships as an ‘abomination’.
“What is really natural?” she asks. “Look at their love. It would be great if we could all look at them as a loving couple and not label them as ‘natural’ or ‘not natural’”.
It is a message which hits home with Htike Myat, who is now taking testosterone to help with her transition after speaking with doctors.
“I was born in the wrong body,” she says simply, when I ask what other slogans she would like to see printed on her t-shirts to describe her experiences of LGBT life in Burma.
“But I want to say to people the most: don’t hide in the closet. Gay is ok. Everybody is gay!”
by Jennifer Rigby
Source – The Telegraph