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Myanmar's 'tomboys' stride out of the shadows

In a once-closed society, pioneers embrace their gender identities

Paing Soe San, 24, models a Burmese traditional male longyi. He says he is proud to identify as a trans man. (Courtesy of VK Photography Burma)

YANGON -- In seventh grade, at school in a small town five hours’ drive north of Yangon, Jel Li developed a crush on another girl. Confused, she wrote her feelings down, but then burned the paper. “I felt I was abnormal. … I didn’t know what was happening to me,” said Jel Li, who has now adopted a transgender male identity. “Every day, I hoped I would change.”

Jel Li’s life changed in 2012, when he was 19 and the internet became widely available after years of suppression by the military regime. “I searched on Google and I saw people like me,” he said. "Since then, I have accepted myself for who I am.”

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