For many years, Burmese lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people have been hiding in the shadows. They face discrimination in a country where homosexual activity is against the law.
But last year’s gay pride in Yangon was a milestone for LGBT rights... and this year’s celebrations promise to push the boundaries even further.
The celebration took place in a hotel in Central Yangon.
Five people are dancing on stage in a hotel room with a song popular with the LGBT community, playing in the background... the lyrics include the words “stop discrimination and accept difference”
Around one thousand people attended the event – from diplomats to ordinary people. Organisers at the event are handing out condoms and leaflets about the dangers of HIV.
Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender are warmly welcomed here... but outside the event, Burma’s conservative society is still reluctant to accept them.
39-year-old Nat Nat Nwe was forced to leave home by his parents.
“I was on the streets and staying at a friend’s house. But it didn’t go well. So I moved from one house to another. Finally, when I’d saved enough money, I rented a house and made friends with neighbours and helped them. Finally they accepted me for who I am.”
He now lives alone in the outskirts of Yangon. He says he feels discriminated against... because he dresses and behaves like a woman.
“We always face discrimination. For example in buses, people will avoid sitting next to us. And they verbally insult us.”
Burmese law still criminalises homosexual activity with punishments ranging from a fine to life imprisonment. And this has forced LGBT people to hide their sexuality.
Aung Myo Min is the director of Equality Myanmar, a human rights education NGO.
He himself is gay and has been hiding his sexuality for years. He only came out while he was in exile in Thailand.
But now he’s back in Burma to help build the LGBT rights movement. The NGO launched its report on LGBT rights in Burma during the event.
“There are so many abuses done by police officer and the victims are LGBT people. They use Law No. 377 as a trap and they also use another police act that says anyone caught in the darkness can be arrested. They use this kind of law to harass, intimidate, arrest and sometimes sexually violate LGBT people.”
In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council passed a historic resolution to endorse the rights of LGBT people.
And for the first time ever, Burma held its first gay pride event last year to mark International Day Against Homophobia.
But in general, they’re still regarded as second class citizens...
“Society accepts them in specific kind of jobs, like beautician and entertainer, but they’ve never been seen with other capabilities in politics, business or all kind of leading positions,” says Aung Myo Min.
“We want to change that. We have different skills, so treat us as unique inviduals and let them contribute to the society. So everyone can play a part in the nation building.”
With the dramatic reforms introduced by President Thein Sein, things are slowly changing.
There’s now an online TV program called ‘Colours Rainbow TV’ which airs once a month. The program, which is targeted at LGBT audiences, is the first of its kind.
There are also training courses for the LGBT community and for people from other minority groups so they can learn how to protect each other’s rights.
But to Aung Myo Min, there’s still a long way to go.
“The new government says that there’s democracy in Burma. That they respect human rights. So we want the government to put a clause on sexual orientation and gender identity to the constitution to ensure that LGBT people are equally treated as other citizens of Burma.”
Min Sanong Htaw is a university student, studying political science.
“I believe in liberalism,” he says,”We should have equal rights, freedom, and justice. As long as our freedom doesn't affect others, we should be free to do what we want. The same applies to gays.”
Aung Myo Min hopes to change society’s perceptions of LGBT people.
“We are not alien, we’re not funny characters. We’re human beings. So we want the society to see as the way we are... not as crazy people or funny person. We want to change this kind of thing.”
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