Myanmar LGBTQ Makeup Artist Swaps Beauty Salon for Border Hideout and Revolution
By The Irrawaddy 3 September 2021
Until the military takeover on Feb. 1, cosmetics, fashion and beauty design were the most important parts of May Oo’s daily life.
For more than a decade, he loved to visually transform people’s appearance through his skills. His passion turned him into one of Yangon’s most highly sought-after makeup artists. His customers included celebrities and family members of high-ranking military officials.
“It’s the profession I really love and I see it as a creative art,” said May Oo, who is gay.
But the military takeover that toppled the elected government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has turned his life upside down.
As a supporter of the NLD government, the 33-year-old opposed the coup.
“We can’t accept it. The military stole power from the elected civilian government, which we voted for,” May Oo said.
Like millions of others, he joined the anti-coup campaigns that have sprung up across the country and which range from banging pots and pans at night to marching in daily street protests to calling on civil servants to strike. At the same time, he disseminated information on the anti-regime protest movement known as Myanmar’s Spring Revolution via his own social media page, which has 770,000 followers, awing his customers with pictures of him shouting anti-regime slogans via a bullhorn at the front of a protest column.
In March, May Oo refused to do the makeup for well-to-do families planning to attend a junta-organized religious ceremony in Naypyitaw, at which the junta conferred titles on wealthy persons.
However, he had to pay a price for his activism.
An arrest warrant was issued by the regime for incitement. Soldiers raided his apartment and took everything including his computer and makeup boxes. “They also destroyed everything in the whole room,” he recalled. Luckily, he managed to evade arrest.
After the junta’s crackdowns against protesters intensified in late March, he was forced to go into hiding in April, partly because of his involvement in protests and for providing support to crackdown victims and their families.
As of Sept. 2, the junta had killed 1,043 civilians and arrested a total of 7,768, of whom 6,132 are still detained. In addition, during their raids, junta troops have looted and destroyed property.
While in lockdown during the first and second waves of COVID-19 in 2020, May Oo was able to continue his work, including providing training to amateur artists. He had trained amateurs and young talents in his profession since 2017, when he opened the May Oo Magic Beauty school, as well as leading a makeup team. His salon employed 12 full-time staff and some 60 part-time artists before the coup.
Now the makeup artist lives a very different life in a place where he feels safe on the border. (He declined to provide details for security reasons.) He once received some weapons training like other young people determined to topple the regime through armed resistance. But he found that his hands, familiar only with makeup brushes, were not good with guns. Since then May Oo has devoted his time and energy to other activities, like raising funds for the movement.
“I know my strength is not [in military activities], so I choose to support this revolution in whatever way I can. I just see myself as a pillar to help the revolution be victorious,” he explained.
May Oo admitted that he can’t help but take off his hat to the young women he has seen seriously engaging in military training, adding that seeing them left him with mixed feelings.
“I’m sure they never thought they would go through such a hard life. But they see that nothing is more important than ousting the regime. So, they feel immune to all the misery and difficulties they are facing. I feel sad for them but at the same time I feel happy [for the country],” he said.
As a gay man who is open about his sexuality, his hopes when voting for the NLD in the November 2020 election were simple: He wanted a government that would respect human rights, including those of the LGBTQ community, which has long faced discrimination in Myanmar.
“The NLD is the only party which respects the rights of minorities and marginalized groups. As an LGBTQ person, we have seen improvements and dignified treatment under the NLD government,” he said.
He told The Irrawaddy that from his point of view, physical and verbal abuse of LGBTQ people decreased under the civilian government. “For a long time, we were insulted for our sexual orientation; but after 2015, we felt less discriminated against, and there were opportunities for makeup artists to choose the path they want.”
LGBTQ people are subject to official persecution and discrimination under Section 377 of the Penal Code as well as the Police Act. People who engage in same-sex acts can be punished with up to 10 years in prison. The push for legislative change got under way under the NLD government and the LGBTQ community had high hopes for it.
“I have suffered discrimination as a gay person since my younger days. I don’t want to experience it again,” he said.
It has now been nearly five months since May Oo went into hiding. He said sometimes he feels regret, especially when he sees people having fun on Facebook.
“That feeling doesn’t last long, though, because I comfort myself with knowing I have done nothing wrong and am taking a stand on the right side,” he said.
Asked if he missed his former life as a makeup artist, he said yes and no. He misses it when he thinks of what his life was like in the past.
“But when I think about tomorrow under this current situation, I no longer miss it at all, because you can’t guess what will happen next. It’s exciting [to see] what the future will hold for me.”
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