“Homosexuality is technically illegal in Burma, although these laws are rarely enforced in practice. In June 2007, a European national was sentenced to 7 years in prison for committing homosexual acts.”
That’s the advice for LGBT travellers to Myanmar (Burma) on the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, which refers to the colonial hangover of anti-gay legislation that is still prevalent around the world. If anything, it comes across as a little daunting, especially with the country’s troubled human rights record that has been brought to the forefront of people’s awareness of the country as Burma becomes the à la mode destination in the Western consciousness. For me personally, I was a little nervous as the jungles of Southeast Asia rolled below me on the final leg of my flight to Yangon (Rangoon), however like many other aspects of Myanmar, a combination of gradual political change and increasing exposure to the outside world after so many years of isolation means that things on the ground are surprisingly different to what you would expect.
As I settled into my hotel, I fired up my new iPad and immediately opened up Grindr. Internet access had only been re-allowed the previous year, and smart phone usage was just beginning to pick up (however smart phones and iPads were becoming increasingly visible in the street and Wi-Fi more widespread), so there wasn’t a huge amount of users at the time (“All 23 people on Grindr,” was a phrase I frequently heard during my time there). More often than not, I was receiving messages from Dhaka and Chiang Mai. Most, if not all, of the users in Myanmar were in Yangon. Typically it was a split of 75% young Burmese, 25% foreigners (half of whom would be tourists passing through Yangon for a few days).
“You mean all 23 people on Grindr?”
At first I was a little cautious – I had been told by someone that something like 20% of the population were informers (bullshit) – and also I was aware that the locals probably had a strong desire to be as discrete as possible with regards to their sexuality. My initial Grindr conversations with Burmese users revolved around safety and acceptance of the LGBT community. Generally Burmese people were very keen to talk, and on Grindr it was no different; they were curious about where I was from and what had brought be to Burma, and many were fascinated by the fact I had green eyes (and I was asked if I was wearing contacts on more than one occasion). Not once did I encounter the stereotypical Southeast Asian moneyboy. Those were some of the cleanest, politest conversations I ever had online; the fact is, most Burmese guys were looking for friends first and foremost, anything else was of minor concern.
I only ever met one Burmese guy from Grindr, a charismatic artisan who seemed to know everyone, and we became good friends. As we sat drinking 2-for-1 happy hour cocktails in the bar of Traders Hotel, I asked him about life for LGBT individuals in Myanmar, he said “It’s very safe, so long as you don’t kiss a drag queen in the streets!” I also asked about how people met, noting the sparse population on Grindr, and it was a very straightforward response: they don’t. Usually people don’t go looking; most don’t have Grindr or other apps, so it’s all down to the old-fashioned way: if something happens, it happens. It was a sentiment echoed by a lot of his gay Burmese friends, and is further compounded by the fact the LGBT community is largely invisible in Burma and Yangon’s gay scene almost non-existent.
It’s no Bangkok, for sure…”
Recently that has begun to change. Just over 1 year ago, Burma’s first regular LGBT event began in Yangon; a monthly night known as Fab. Held on the last Saturday on each month, the location is published on Facebook. With Fab coinciding with my birthday, naturally it was the ideal opportunity for a good party. I arrived early, and watched a steady trickle of people arrive; the locals cautiously (for many of the Burmese this was their first time at Fab I was told later), the foreigners less so – the vast majority of them were straight, cisgender people, and for them it was just another party. I spoke to a few people, first to some foreigners who shared my impressions of the gay scene in Yangon; very quiet, in complete contrast to Bangkok’s orgiastic buzz only an hour’s flight away. I also spoke to a trans girl, who looked like royalty in her traditional dress. Unassuming, gentle, beautiful inside and out. For me they epitomised my experience of the LGBT community in Myanmar.
Fab got into full swing, and any initial nervousness was forgotten. There were dance performances by a local troupe, the music was great (one of the best DJs in Burma was playing), the drinks well-priced, and most importantly the crowd were really good fun. There was a balanced mix of locals, expats and tourists, from all walks of life. That was first time so many Burmese people had been there, while the presence of so many foreigners (diplomats, business people, rich tourists) is also good because it offers some protection to the LGBT community as the last thing the authorities want these people seeing is harassment by police, locals etc. The vibe was great, certainly it was the best birthday party I’d had in my adult life, and I left having made many lasting friendships. This isn’t a night you should miss out on (in fact it was voted Best Party in Yangon 2014).
From then on I continued to meet many LGBT people and allies in Burma, which was a real privilege. The impression that I and a lot of other visitors to Myanmar got was that the country hadn’t really been exposed to the gay movement and so on (which makes sense since “gay” is really a western cultural identity for something bigger that is universally present in all cultures, at least in my opinion). It’s so grassroots and invisible right now that there isn’t really anything else for people to react to (trans people on the other hand are usually more visible and more likely to be victims of violence). Maybe with time there might be some kickback as the LGBT community grows in confidence and visibility, but I and others are hopeful that ultimately something positive will happen for sexual and gender minorities in Myanmar.
Regardless of your sexuality or gender identity, I would definitely recommend you visit Burma, and Fab party if you have the opportunity when in Yangon. The people I met were so humble and genuine, I really value the short time I had to get to know them. If there is anything I learned from the my gay friends in Yangon it is that as people, all we are really searching for – and need – is the freedom to be ourselves, love and know that we are loved.