Hnin Pa Pa Soe was about 12 when she realized she was more interested in girls than boys. But it would be more than 10 years before she would come out to anyone.
Social norms surrounding female behavior were so strong that, even as a child, she sensed that telling anyone about her feelings could have negative consequences.
“I kept it to myself to avoid mockery,” she said, referring to the most common reaction in Myanmar toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, whose image tends to be shaped by the stereotyped characters in comedy shows and movies.
These days the 26-year-old uses documentary film as a tool to tell the stories of people who have shared her struggle. Her films counter the mischaracterization of LGBT people in mainstream entertainment in Myanmar.
“I want to show that LGBT people everywhere contribute to society,” she said.
Transgender women and gay men in particular are usually portrayed as wacky and flamboyantly dressed characters who shamelessly hit on men and use vulgar language. Lesbians are shown as relentless pursuers of women, Hnin Pa Pa Soe said.
In Hnin Pa Pa Soe’s hometown in Mon State, movies and traditional dance shows were the mediums through which most people encountered LGBT “people.” Growing up, she feared being lumped in with these characters and called a “dyke.”
She had very few friends at school. Her childhood memories are mostly of discrimination and being left out.
“Teachers told us that tomboys dressed like boys and hung out with boys, but that eventually they all fall pregnant and ‘turn into’ girls,” Hnin Pa Pa Soe said. She recalled how tomboys, too, were generally viewed through the prism of movies. “I hid my feelings,” she said.
Her boyish taste in clothing saw her singled out. “I was constantly being called ‘tomboy’ and ‘bull dyke’. After a while I withdrew,” she said.
During school fairs or ceremonies, her teachers told her that there was no role or place for her and left her to take care of the empty classroom.
Journey of Self-Discovery
Nearly two years ago she came out—but only to a few trusted people. Most importantly, she took an important step on her journey of self-discovery when she found a way to tell “a simple love story” about two transgender friends.
In 2016, having realized she was an LGBT person while interning for Equality Myanmar, a human rights advocacy group, she felt a desire to show the public that LGBT people are not the way they are portrayed in comedies.
Thanks to documentary filmmaking workshops organized by Colors Rainbow, the biggest LGBT organization in Myanmar, Hnin Pa Pa Soe was able to make her debut short film, “A Simple Love Story.” The piece won the Best Documentary Film prize at the Wathann Film Festival, which showcases local independent film, in September. Despite the award, however, the film was not screened at the festival because Hnin Pa Pa Soe refused to bow to the Censorship Board’s demand that the ending be changed.
At the center of the film is a love story between a transgender woman and a transgender man that challenges norms surrounding gender identity and love. The censor was unhappy with the final line of the film: “Does love recognize ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘tomboy’ or ‘shemale’?”
The censor advised that the closing line be re-edited for screening at the festival, but Hnin Pa Pa Soe decided that if it were not her version, she would rather not show it.
“The Censorship Board’s demand really upset me,” she said. “The line [the board] wanted me to modify does not involve vulgar language of the kind they routinely allow in comedies,” she said.
Being LGBT herself, she said, she would never insult her own community and was willing to accept full responsibility for her portrayal of LGBT people.
“My stance was firm,” she said. “I won’t show it if [the original version] is not allowed. I won’t modify it.”
Hnin Pa Pa Soe is currently making a documentary about the struggles of LGBT people in the workplace. She said LGBT employees are left out of the conversation whenever gender disparity in the workplace is discussed, because they don’t conform to gender norms.
Hnin Pa Pa Soe said her goal now is to try to represent the many diverse faces of the LGBT community in Myanmar, to show that they exist in places where many people wouldn’t expect to find them.
Coming Out to Parents Is Something Very Different
Asked what she would have done with her life if she had not become a human rights trainer and filmmaker, Hnin Pa Pa Soe said she might have continued her studies to obtain a master’s degree or become a teacher, which is what her parents wanted her to do. The only reason she didn’t do these things was the regulation that female students must wear the traditional female garment, the longyi, at high schools and universities—something she was very uncomfortable with.
As a young woman who liked to wear T-shirts and pants, Hnin Pa Pa Soe struggled with the issue of clothing throughout high school and university.
“When I wore longyi at university, I would try to stay seated,” she said. “All day I was just waiting for class to finish. I couldn’t concentrate on my lessons.”
She tried to alter her clothing, but it was impossible, and she ended up transferring into a distance-learning program that didn’t require her to attend daily classes. Importantly, she could wear what she liked during the rest of the time.
“When I am wearing something I don’t feel comfortable with, I withdraw, feeling inconsequential,” she said.
She rarely visits her hometown, which she left in 2016 to participate in an internship program at Equality Myanmar’s office in Mandalay.
“There is no place for me there,” she said.
While she has come out to colleagues and a few liberal-minded people, she remains emotionally distant from her family. Her parents just think that she likes wearing boys’ clothing; they don’t know that she likes women.
Hnin Pa Pa Soe wants her parents to understand her gender identity, but also thinks it’s better not to tell them at this time, as she knows how hard it would be for them to accept her.
“There would be conflict if I told them who I am,” she said. “I am not necessarily hiding it from them; they will know when they know.”
Hnin Pa Pa Soe plans to keep advocating human rights and LGBT issues. She believes that the more people she reaches out to, the fewer people will have to experience the kind of resistance she has.
“When people are able to accept their own identities, they are empowered to improve their lives,” she said.