When I first came to Myanmar in 2013, there was no information available about what Myanmar was like for LGBT+ travelers and locals. All guide books were out of date in general, and the country was changing so rapidly – the opening up of the country to the outside world, the re-legalisation of the internet, the availability of mobile phones, the arrival of VISA and then Mastercard, and the availability of internationally connected ATMs – so many things were completely different to what self-proclaimed “experts” who had been there months before were declaring fact. And the situation for sexual and gender minorities was still so mysterious; no one had yet given an on the ground perspective of the reality of living and travelling here.
Shortly after I left, I wrote what became my most widely read post (still to this day) on Gay Burma. The dynamic nature of Myanmar means that whatever I have written in the past, while true for that moment in time, can quickly become outdated. To some extent that is true for the LGBT situation.
Fab, at the time Myanmar’s only regular LGBT event, which takes place on the last Saturday of every month, is still going strong – after a very brief hiatus earlier this year, 600 people crammed into J-One Club (located behind Union Business Center in Yangon’s Bahan Township), underscoring its reputation as the best party in Yangon. This reputation (and recent enforcement of long existing laws – not a new “curfew” as many expats bemoan – requiring bars to close at 11pm) attracts a mix of LGBT and straight allies, both local and international. When I returned to Fab exactly two years since my first visit, I felt overwhelmed by straight, white expats who seemingly had no affinity to the LGBT community, however over the last few months the mix has become more balanced. Entry is now restricted to 400 people and most LGBT partiers arrive between 21:30-23:00 to guarantee their place – just check on Facebook that the event is going ahead on the day.
YG Events, which runs Fab, has also branched out, including opening Yangon’s first gay-friendly bar, Fahrenheit, which serves Mexican-Myanmar fusion food and good cocktails, and also hosts regular gay events such as BOYS! gay night on Tuesdays. Fahrenheit is also the location of the Fab pre-party (and the pre-party for their other monthly event, Night Shelter, which also takes place at J-One). Definitely give it a visit, regardless of what the date is.
In terms meeting guys in Yangon, things have definitely changed. Two years ago, the expats and tourists I met would quip about “all 23 people on Grindr”. Back then smart phones and 3G data packages were prohibitively expensive (let alone a Nokia brick and basic SIM card), so online dating apps really weren’t a thing. In 2015 things are very different; an influx of foreign money and affordable smartphones from elsewhere in Asia has increased the user base of Grindr exponentially (in Yangon at least).
These days, Grindr is populated by a sea of torsos, fake profile pictures and twinks whose ages seem somewhat questionable. A peppering of expatriates and foreign tourists completes the grid, although it seems like the bulk of gay expats have little or no online presence. Indeed, there appears to be minimal interaction between most foreigners and locals, outside of those involved in some level of activism, or those who have had a significant amount of exposure to the others’ culture.
Why this separation? The impression I’ve gotten from speaking to both locals and foreigners is that it largely comes down to one thing: drama. Not a lot of it, but enough to have heard a number of people comment on it. I think much of it is down to the rapid adoption of hook-up apps before the community has matured and developed its own identity. There’s a simultaneous yearning for both casual sex and emotionally stable relationships. This strange, confusing microcosm feels somewhat hollow, compared to my first impressions 2 years ago, but maybe isn’t a far cry from what we are seeing in the post-Grindr world elsewhere. Perhaps I was naïve back then, or perhaps I still am an outsider…
There are other factors too – for example homosexuality is still officially illegal under the colonial-era penal code. Mandalay in particular has a bad reputation for harassment of LGBT individuals, especially Trans people (who are often more visible than sexual minorities), which hasn’t changed since I was here in 2013. That said, Taung Pyone Nat (AKA Spirit) festival held in Taung Pyone village in Mandalay Division, which is held in mid-August and is the most famous of the Nat festivals, is not only a safe space that attracts a large number of LGBT revellers, but many of the most acclaimed mediums are also gay or transvestite.
Then take conservative Rakhine state – initially it seemed gender minorities were not only more visible, but also more accepted, even in the smaller towns. Then today that impression shredded when I saw a genderqueer person loudly harassed in the street by some louts passing on a tuktuk. I was saddened to be reminded that there are people who just can’t deal with the fact people are different. Still, it’s not always like that, even here – and more than one person has been open about who they are, even if discretely.
In Yangon, on a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, my dinner date bumped into two gay friends, their fingers tightly interlocked in the middle of the crowded temple. That was a surprise to me for sure, but no one seemed to bat an eyelid. So while things on paper aren’t necessarily fabulous, there are hints that attitudes on the ground are actually different or if not changing.
In May 2012, Myanmar celebrated its first Pride event, and last year a couple held what is thought to be the countries first public same-sex wedding ceremony. Last year Yangon saw Myanmar’s first ever queer film festival: &PROUD, which was due to be happening again in November 2015, but was postponed because of the Myanmar General Election happening the week before. I planned to volunteer at &PROUD, and from a sneak peak of some of the films, I think it’s going to be a really good event, regardless of your sexuality or gender identity – definitely check it out if you are in Myanmar at that time (and I must mention that there will be some very attractive older men, if you’re that way inclined). Such events and safe spaces are essential for the LGBT+ community in Myanmar to discover their voice and their identity, and also for the wider community in Myanmar to experience and understand their LGBT friends, relatives and neighbours.
Yes, things aren’t perfect. And yes, there are frustrations. But things are definitely not unpleasant, and things are changing. There are some really lovely, beautiful personalities here – both local and foreign – from all across the LGBT+ spectrum. There are people really working to make a difference. I spent my weekend laughing and crying in front of some really great films alongside some of the nicest people I’d met in Myanmar. I had found my place – my hope is that the gay community is Myanmar has that opportunity too.