CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Despite last week’s sea change in the Union Parliament following the roaring victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in Burma’s historic November election, it is unclear if the dividing line that relegates the former pariah state’s LGBTQ citizens to the fringes of cultural and political life will persist.
At least in part, the bones of this lie in the legacy of British colonialism that still stretches across large swaths of Asia. Section 377 of the former British penal code criminalizes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” which has typically been interpreted to mean same-sex acts, particularly sodomy. Britain’s penal code was exported to its colonies to entrench European mores among the local masses. This doubled as a form of control, and it remains intact in many former colonies today.
Present-day Burma still has section 377 on its books. People who engage in same-sex acts can be punished with up to 10 years in prison. Laws against homosexuality are rarely enforced, but sexual minorities and their advocates often face abuse from police, who are known to extort bribes by using the threat of prosecution.
In 2013, for instance, 12 gay men and transgender women in Mandalay were arrested and then forced to strip in public before they were taken to a police station and subjected to further humiliation. After the incident, Human Rights Watch reported that Myint Kyu, Mandalay Division’s minister of border and security affairs, said, “The existence of gay men who assume that they are women is unacceptable, and therefore we are constantly taking action to have the gays detained at police stations, educate them and then hand them back to their parents,” though this usually hinges on the ability to pay bond.
Queer men are confronted with obstacles including greater risk of contracting HIV in a society whose stigma against homosexuality obstructs safe-sex education and shames those who are HIV positive into silence. However, non-gender conforming and queer women are arguably more obscured in larger human rights efforts in Burma.
Lynette Chua, assistant professor of law at the National Singapore University, told The Irrawaddy that transgender women “are overwhelmingly targeted by police because they’re seen as acting in a way that’s gender transgressive.” But social norms ignore abuses to this group by unspooling a narrative that its members invited violence. This is underpinned by broader discrimination against women and by a widely accepted belief in the majority-Buddhist country that being transgender is accumulated bad karma for past sins.
In the lead-up to November’s general election, activists aimed their efforts at summoning political muscle as a key way to protect and empower Burma’s LGBTQ citizens.
One of Burma’s most prominent human rights voices, Aung Myo Min, said in an interview with The Irrawaddy that activists during this time had two main objectives: making sexual minorities visible, and prodding candidates to rethink social prejudices before the newly minted lawmakers took up their seats in Parliament.
“Much of the public still sees homosexuality as a negative element,” he said, “and politicians are wary of promoting LGBTQ rights because they fear that doing so might make it seem as if they have a more vested motive for taking up these causes. Raising awareness among political players is one of the best means of galvanizing support for LGBTQ citizens.”
This is likely because progress in conservative Burma must stem from simultaneous, equally powerful changes both to national culture as well as to national policy.
David Gilbert, a researcher at Australia National University focusing on how regulation shapes gender and sexuality in everyday Rangoon life, put it plainly to The Irrawaddy, saying that Burma “needs law reform,” including the repeal of section 377 and vague anti-loitering laws, such as section 30(d) of the Rangoon Police Act, which has frequently been used to target male-bodied transgender women. In addition to a shift in public attitudes, “new laws are needed to provide protection from discrimination,” he said.
Yet there is a healthy dose of skepticism to be had. While some politicians have called on the decriminalization of homosexuality in Burma, the country’s tenuous political climate makes it dubious as to whether qualified words will translate into action anytime soon. Indeed, LGBTQ rights have yet to secure a crowning position on political agendas.
Burma has made headway over the past few years by bringing more attention to its admittedly grim LGBTQ situation. There is a burgeoning grassroots movement, and in January activists lauded the return of the &Proud LGBTQ film festival. Hopes are certainly high that this is the dawn of a new, liberal era in Burma. But looking ahead, advancing LGBTQ rights—giving greater prominence to lesbian and transgender rights, building the capacity of local leaders and even having openly LGBTQ candidates contest elections—will require Burma’s political top brass to grapple with what activists describe as a problem of political vision.
“New lawmakers must see LGBTQ rights as human rights. It’s important for sexual minorities to be treated as equal human beings,” Aung Myo Min said. “What activists want is the universality of LGBTQ rights and the lives they protect.”