YANGON — With a lack of accessible role models in Myanmar for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth to look up to and identify with, rights advocates stressed the need to empower sexual minorities to feel confident to come out and accept their gender identities.
Greater LGBT representation in different local contexts plays a crucial role in empowering community members and affirming that their sexuality is not a mistake, the advocates said.
When there are more LGBT people of different backgrounds coming out, there will be more diverse LGBT faces in society, which will eventually lead to less prejudice against them, said Hla Myat Tun, program director of the LGBT rights organization Colors Rainbow.
“Coming out helps LGBT individuals to have more self-esteem and visibility,” he said.
In the meantime, he recognized the need for a safe environment where there is no discrimination, and emotional support for the community members in order to come out and not face social rejection.
Myanmar’s biggest LGBT event &Proud Film Festival returned to Yangon for its fourth edition in the last week of January at the city’s Thakin Mya Park, for its first public viewing. It was again celebrated at the French Institute from Feb. 1 through Sunday.
The six-day festival included films from Asian countries such as Taiwan, Philippines, Korea and Taiwan, human libraries where LGBT people shared their life stories with festival audiences, photo exhibitions that explored the struggles of LGBT members, drag Olympics and performances, an LGBT choir, and panel discussions. It also tackled the importance of coming out and its impact on not only the well-being and happiness of LGBT people but also the attitude of others toward them.
Seeing tens of thousands of both LGBT and non-LGBT people enjoy the event comfortably and without having to worry about being intimidated by anyone, organizers were inspired to continue creating this safe environment with additional activities in the future, the festival’s co-director and Colors Rainbow’s Hla Myat Tun said.
The festival crowd made LGBT members feel proud of their sexual orientation and helped them realize they were not alone or invisible, he added.
“[The event] was held for a limited time in a limited space,” he said. “They should be entitled to a safe environment every day no matter where they are in this country,” he explained, highlighting that it is the ultimate goal of LGBT rights movement.
Human rights trainer and lesbian filmmaker Hnin Pa Pa Soe screened a short video called “It Gets Better” at the festival, which told the coming out stories of four LGBT individuals in an effort to encourage other LGBT members to accept their gender identities.
“When people are able to accept who they really are, they feel no restraint in doing what they want and are able to push boundaries,” she said.
She was also finally able to screen her award-winning documentary “A Simple Love Story” for the public at the festival. Her film won the best documentary film prize at last year’s Wathann Film Festival, which showcases local independent film. Refusing to bow to the Censorship Board’s demand to change the film’s ending line—“Does love recognize ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘tomboy’ or ‘shemale’?” she decided not to show it at Wathann.
Despite the effort of LGBT rights advocacy groups, Section 377 of the colonial-era Penal Code that criminalizes “unnatural” sex and carries life imprisonment has yet to be abolished in Myanmar. Although it is rarely enforced, it has been used to target and harass LGBT people.
According to Aung Myo Min, an openly gay activist and executive director at human rights advocacy organization Equality Myanmar, there is still a huge social stigma surrounding homosexuality in the country and no local politician or legislator is promoting the issue.
If there were lawmakers who recognized the rights of LGBT people or capable LGBT lawmakers in Parliament, the issue would be destigmatized more quickly, he explained. He also stressed the role of civil society organizations in building the capacity of LGBT individuals so that the public would recognize their abilities regardless of their gender identities.
“At the same time, the [LGBT] issue must be accepted among the public,” U Aung Myo Min said.
The fact that the local government allowed &Proud organizers to use a public space for the celebration was a big step forward in an effort for social acceptance, which he said was the “start of attitude change” at an administrative level.
It engaged with more people, including non-LGBT people, than in previous years, and created an opportunity for people to understand different gender identities, he said.
“If there is more dialogue [among the public,] they will become more open-minded.”
Tin Htet Paing is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Yangon. She previously worked at The Irrawaddy as a reporter for three years.