Snapping a portrait of two men in traditional Burmese costumes, smiling in a sea of golden bowls and flowers, may seem relatively innocuous compared to the many historic steps Myanmar has taken in recent years.
But photographer Phone Myat Htoo may have been the first in recent years to capture a gay wedding in Myanmar.
The photo, which he posted on Facebook in October with a caption supporting same-sex marriage, received positive comments from hundreds of internet users in the region and was shared by some 1,000 more.
But it also sparked violent reactions in Myanmar, where homosexuality is a crime under Section 377 of its penal code, and where members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community face a mix of grudging tolerance and outright discrimination.
“I received hate messages and I even got phone calls like: ‘I want to kill you,'” the British-trained Phone Myat Htoo said at his busy and spacious studio in Yangon. “But that’s only a phone call, there was no action after that.
“[The responses to the photo] were a bit of both: some positive, some negative. But it’s created a lot of heat here,” he said.
Though not privy to the details of the ceremony, he said pre-wedding photo sessions were one of the ways to formalise such a union.
“Many gay couples in Yangon, they live together – but by law, there’s no such thing as a marriage between them whatsoever. So they just take a photo,” Phone Myat Htoo said.
Despite numerous requests, the couple in the picture declined to be interviewed.
The experience illustrates how gay people are forced to stay in the closet by an unsympathetic public and government. Homosexual acts are listed under “unnatural offences” in Myanmar’s British-colonial-era penal code.
It prescribes an unspecified fine, life imprisonment or up to 10 years in jail for “whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal”.
The penal code is also in force in former British colonies such as India and Singapore – but not in Hong Kong, which legalised gay sex in 1991.
Though Section 377 is rarely enforced in Myanmar, Aung Myo Min, executive director of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB) and a graduate of Columbia University’s human rights programme, said the fact that this law existed made LGBT people vulnerable to abuse by the police.
“It’s used as a threat. That law should be abolished and repealed,” said Aung Myo Min, who has been based in Thailand for 20 years, and said he had to leave his country due to his political views.
“It is not strictly imposed, but the police use the law to intimidate. If gay men cannot pay a bribe, the police can use other criminal statutes. Burma has so many criminal statutes that can put anyone in jail, without any reason,” he said.
HREIB launches campaigns and training for Myanmar’s marginalised sectors, and compiles reports of human-rights violations. There are no LGBT non-governmental groups operating within the country.
Aung Myo Min cited the case of a gay man in Yangon who was caught at night in the streets by police, and accused of “hanging out in a dark place and soliciting”. Unable to pay a bribe, he was locked up.
“He was first sexually harassed by other inmates and then forced to perform oral sex on [the police],” Aung Myo Min said.
In a less extreme case, the Belgium-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s website said several gay people were arrested a few years ago during the annual Taung Byone near Mandalay, the country’s largest spirit festival, which attracts hundreds of gay people.
They were eventually released without charge.
Aung Myo Min said homophobia was deeply rooted in the local culture. One reason is that some teachers of Buddhism, the religion of 90 per cent of the population, hold that “LGBT people suffered from lust in a previous life, or they did something wrong, like adultery. So because of their sin, they are gay in their current life. They are seen as abnormal”.
It is no surprise, then, that Myanmar’s gay scene has been muted to the point that it is barely visible to outsiders. It is accessible to those “in the know” – helped by guides such as online LGBT resource Utopia Asia, which verifies a handful of gay hangouts in the country, and local tour agencies that discreetly offer gay-friendly tours.
One of the tour highlights is Yangon’s city centre, where a handful of gay meeting spots like the 9th Floor Disco are located. The club – which is in a block of night spots and karaoke bars called Mingal Zei that doubles as a red-light district – only comes alive a few days a week.
“The gay nightlife is very quiet, very dry. Maybe this is why the slang term for a gay person is achauk [which literally means ‘dry one’],” notes one official from a gay-friendly tour agency.
Thailand-based Canadian lawyer Douglas Sanders, who has written extensively on the gay scene in Myanmar after travelling to the country 10 years ago, said the disco attracted an emerging set of young, middle-class gays.
“This development has not been met by any police, government or religious reaction or repression. Maybe it is still pretty invisible, though the two [gay] discos in Yangon function openly and are busy,” he said.
Gay-friendly tours attract professional couples from Singapore and Europe, the tour agency official says. These visitors want to travel to the country without being judged for things like sharing the same room at a hotel.
Tour guide Leon (not his real name), 26, who handles some gay-friendly tours, said LGBT visitors were curious about the other side of Myanmar. “They ask me: ‘How do local gays live, how do they meet, how do they love each other?’ I answer: ‘Just like normal. But there are places, like some temples, where gay people are not allowed.'”
Leon’s own sister is a lesbian in her 30s, whom he describes as “very handsome” and thus “has many girlfriends”.
Unlike most parents, Leon said, their father was more accepting. “Since she was six or seven, my sister liked to wear trousers – she never wore longyi [skirts]. Our relatives criticise my sister, saying: ‘Why are you like that? A girl has to be a girl.’ But my father is very open. He sees her as a gift from the gods,” he said.
Still, as a tour guide, Leon sees potential risks in the rising tourist interest in the local gay scene. “I am very worried that, like in Bangkok, we’ll have lots of gay bars. Maybe it will bring child abuse or HIV. I am afraid because we lack sex education in schools,” he said.
Another reason why gay people are less visible, sources say, is because they are boxed into certain jobs: hair stylist, make-up artist, fashion designer or entertainer – jobs which are not always looked upon favourably.
Hair stylist Thein Tun Zaw, who goes by the name Empress Linn Linn, said he had to defy his parents’ wishes to run a salon in Bagan, an arid and rural tourist destination some 600 kilometres north of Yangon that is known for its ancient temples and shrines.
He has quietly run a spartan and modern hair salon for seven years in a sleepy Bagan village accessible only by dirt roads. “I was interested in becoming a beautician since I was young, but my parents don’t like it. So I thought about a job that my parents considered dignified,” said Linn Linn, who studied psychology in university.
He became a tutor and later worked at the offices of export-import companies, but quickly realised “those jobs were not for me”.
Aung Myo Min said the limited range of employment available to gay people was a form of stereotyping. “People cannot accept LGBTs in a leading role, as any big figure. We really need to change that negative attitude and show that we are just as capable of contributing to society.”
Linn Linn said Myanmar’s gay scene was less vibrant and outspoken than in neighbouring Thailand, where he trained for several years as a stylist. “It is OK for us to live anywhere if we live appropriately within Burmese tradition”, he said, but LGBTs in his hometown had to keep their romantic lives under wraps.
“I have a boyfriend, but he doesn’t really like me. There are many, many boys. But it is only easy to have a boyfriend if you have lots of money. We don’t have gay parties in Bagan. He and I meet secretly at restaurants.”
However, one role that allows gay people to live out in the open is being a nat kadaw, or spirit medium. They are believed to be chosen by the gods to perform crucial roles at sacred festivals like the Taung Byone, and tell the fortunes of their followers.
Sanders, the lawyer, wrote in Singapore’s Fridae magazine that “virtually all of the male nat kadaws and their acolytes are homosexual, manifested in the effeminate self-presentation and various degrees of cross-dressing”.
Many gay people aspired to this role, Aung Myo Min said, “because in real life they always feel discriminated or looked down upon – but once they are nat kadaw, they have worshippers who respect them and listen to them”.
It is precisely this kind of acceptance of LGBTs that rights activists would like to see enshrined in Myanmar’s law and public consciousness. But they see an uphill battle ahead.
Aung Myo Min is helping the push for an equality law to be drafted into the constitution, and hopes to hold an LGBT caucus, bringing in activists from across the region, leading up to the 2014 summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – which Myanmar will host.
But he sees problems with reluctant ministers and a parliament where “35 per cent are from the military and another 60 per cent are from the government-backed party”. “We cannot openly call a meeting with the government to talk about the LGBT issue.”
Thus, the problem has to be framed under a broader push for equality and legal reform.
While the picture is far from perfect, there have been signs of progress for LGBTs in recent years as the country, freed from military rule, began to open up.
Aung Myo Min said Myanmar held its first transgender beauty pageant, Miss Red Ribbon, in 2009 to promote awareness about HIV/Aids. It was held again last year and was even publicly broadcast.
That same year, Myanmar saw its first gay pride festival (though without a parade) in May and its first celebration of International Day against Homophobia on December 10.
“These opening up events are good, to generate public interest and promote a more positive image of LGBTs,” Aung Myo Min said. “It is important for public visibility and for LGBT people in Burma to rise up and organise these meaningful things. But of course, we have a long way to go.”
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as in a secret world
Read about what happened on my trip to Myanmar here.