In Myanmar, LGBT+ people join anti-coup protests with rainbow flags

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Growing up in rural Myanmar, Du Wun shunned the jewellery his mother pressed him to wear and dreaded ceremonies where he had to dress in a traditional htamein, a sarong-like garment for women.

Du Wun, a transgender man, was bullied as a teenager and disowned by his parents. He only began to accept his gender identity when he connected with other LGBT+ people – a lifeline he fears is under threat following a Feb 1 military coup.

“I was intimidated and ashamed about my identity,” said Du Wun, 26, who decided to quit his job as a teacher in 2016 due to family difficulties and moved from his village to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.

His life improved four years ago when he started attending events organised by Myanmar’s budding LGBT+ community, which helped him find the confidence to come out.

“I saw other LGBTQ people, so I started to accept my identity,” said Du Wun, who has since shared his experiences as a trans man in Myanmar at different workshops.

Many LGBT+ people in Myanmar keep their true identity under wraps due to social stigma, and British colonial-era legislation that criminalises gay sex with up to 10 years in jail.

Other former colonies, such as Malaysia and Singapore, have similar laws, which LGBT+ activists say legitimise discrimination and harassment even though they rarely lead to legal sanctions.

Du Wun fears Myanmar’s budding LGBT+ community will be silenced under a new military junta and progress towards equal rights will be erased.

Door shut again

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in protests and strikes since the military seized power from the elected civilian government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and declared a year-long state of emergency.

Although most protesters carry red flags showing support for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, a small but growing number of LGBT+ people are going out onto the streets flying rainbow flags and wearing colourful outfits.

In Yangon, hundreds gathered and demonstrated under the banner “LGBTQ 4 Democracy” last week, and similar protests attended by trans women took place in the country’s second-largest city, Mandalay.

In other towns, many of which had little or no public LGBT+ presence previously, rainbow flags are increasingly visible.

“Under military dictatorship, we will face discrimination,” said Ko E.T., a gay man who has been marching daily with other LGBT+ people in Shewbo, a town in central Myanmar.

“Since (the military) doesn’t follow human rights, there is no way that it will protect the rights of LGBT+ people.”

The Myanmar military, which could not be reached for comment, said this month it was committed to holding new elections and would hand over power, although a date has not been set.

Moving backward

LGBT+ people face widespread prejudice in socially conservative Myanmar, and trans people say they are often harassed by officials.

The community has made small gains since the Southeast Asian nation began transitioning to democracy a decade ago, with increasing turnouts at Pride festivals since 2012 and the emergence of more LGBT+ rights groups.

Last year, Myanmar’s first openly gay candidate stood as a regional lawmaker. Now LGBT+ rights groups fear the door that had started opening will slam shut again.

“We have come this far,” said Hla Myat Tun, deputy director of local advocacy group, Colors Rainbow.

He said he hoped the country could return to an elected civilian government so progress on LGBT+ rights could continue.

Under the previous military regime that ruled from 1962 to 2011, the freedom of civil society and the media was severely restricted. LGBT+ activists said the junta’s motto of “one blood, one voice, one command” left no room for inclusivity.

Unsure about what the future holds, one local non-profit that brings together trans men has paused operations indefinitely, said its co-founder Jel Li, asking for the group’s name not to be published.

Although hundreds have been arrested in relation to the pro-democracy protests and several killed, many in the LGBT+ community are determined to ensure their voices are heard.

“Even though as LGBT+ people most of us will not have sons or daughters, we are fighting for the future generations including all LGBT+ people,” said Jel Li.

“We don’t want to move backward.”

This article is re-published with permission from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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