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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.”

In addition to identifying as a trans man, Jel Li is part of a growing number of people in Myanmar who identify as “tomboys.” Biologically female, tomboys wear short hair and dress in a masculine style. Most prefer to go by masculine pronouns; some also identify as transgender men or lesbians. The term “tomboy” relates to gender identity rather than sexual orientation; however, tomboys interviewed by the Nikkei Asian Review said most are attracted to women.

A Burmese-language online chat group for tomboys and trans men attracted 1,400 members in just six weeks since it was established in early August, but the number of people identifying themselves in this way is likely much higher, according to Htar Htar Thet, a trainer and activist on gender issues.

Hla Myat Tun, deputy director of the LGBT organization Colors Rainbow, said the environment for LGBT people in Myanmar is “getting better as far as public awareness and social acceptance.” Even so, he added, the Burmese-language LGBT lexicon remains limited primarily to derogatory terms.

Jel Li, 27, used to be ashamed of his gender identity, but now leads Yangon's first organization for trans men and tomboys. (Photo by Emily Fishbein)

Myanmar’s legal framework is also among the most conservative in Southeast Asia in relation to LGBT rights. Changes of legal gender are not permitted, and a colonial-era law prohibits “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” although it is rarely enforced. A National Youth Policy enacted in 2018 includes anti-discrimination clauses to protect LGBT young people, but Myanmar has no general anti-discrimination law that mentions LGBT people as a protected group.

In June, a 26-year-old gay librarian at a public university died by suicide after posting screenshots documenting harassment from colleagues. A government investigation exonerated the university and its staff and called the librarian “mentally weak.”

This case brought attention to the social and institutional challenges that gay men face in Myanmar. The challenges faced by trans women -- often stereotyped as beauticians, fashion designers and “spirit mediums” known as nat kadaw -- have also gained some public attention. However, tomboys and trans men have so far remained less visible, according to Hla Myat Tun. In 2018 Jel Li and three other tomboys established their own organization, Rainbow Six, to advocate and raise awareness about the issues they face.

Min Min, 26, and part of Myanmar's Muslim minority, said his father never hesitated to accept his new gender identity and call him "son." He wears a male longyi to his work at a media company, where his colleagues call him "brother." (Photo by Emily Fishbein)

Most of the tomboys interviewed by Nikkei said they felt Myanmar society was generally moving toward acceptance. “There are many of us going this way; now people know what tomboys are,” said Thar Thar, a 26-year-old private hospital employee. Min Min, 26, who works at a media company, added: “The people who look down on us have decreased. … People see bigots as the bad ones these days.”

Some tomboys said their parents accepted their new gender identities, even calling them “son.” “There wasn’t much pushback against me. … [My family] said I can live the lifestyle I want,” said Thar Thar.

However, others said their parents saw their tomboy identities as a phase. “My mother always told me when I grew up, not to act like a man,” said Jel Li. “She thinks I will change one day.” University student Ah Theint, 17, said his mother continues to hope he will return to identifying as female, and gave him women’s clothes and cosmetics as a high school graduation gift.

Thar Thar, 26, covers his fitted female uniform with a loose jacket at his work at a private hospital. (Photo by Emily Fishbein)

Tomboys said they constantly adjust according to their surroundings. “Some people call me brother; some people call me sister; and some people just call me [by my name],” said Thar Thar, who goes by a female identity at work but a male identity at home and socially. Min Min, who is called “son” at home and “brother” at work, but attended a state-run girls’ high school, said that if someone questions his identity, he always responds with: “Yes, I am a girl, so what?” Sometimes, he added, “I still define myself as a girl to avoid trouble.”

Government schools and many jobs in the public and private sector require gendered uniforms, including a fitted blouse for females, which the tomboys said they cover with a jacket. Paing Soe San, 24, who volunteers as a trainer and public speaker on LGBT issues, quit his first office job because he was required to wear a female uniform. He said some jobs do not allow tomboys to apply for male-designated positions, while others require tomboys to accept a male workload but pay them lower, female wages.

Some trans men use the male sex hormone testosterone to match their physical characteristics -- such as voice tenor and muscle, fat and hair distribution patterns -- to their gender identities. Those interviewed by Nikkei said that in Myanmar, injecting testosterone is common among tomboys, who purchase it online and learn how to inject it from friends.

Paing Soe San began injecting the male sex hormone testosterone at age 20. "I don't want to live in a way I don't like until I'm 80," he told his mother. "I want to live in a way that makes me happy." (Photo by Emily Fishbein)

Paing Soe San, who has been injecting since he was 20, said he deliberated for years before buying his first dose. “When it was in my hand, I considered whether to inject or not,” he said. “I went back and forth again and again.” When his mother expressed concern about medical risks, he told her: “I don’t want to live in a way I don’t like until I’m 80. I want to live in a way that makes me happy.”

However, Paing Soe San said it is hard in Myanmar to find doctors who are sensitive to LGBT people and qualified to advise on testosterone injections. “People search online but information is not exactly sure, so people listen to each other. … No one exactly knows the details about the benefits and risks.” He said if there were available specialists, tomboys would go to them.

Paing Soe San says he does not subscribe to the belief perpetuated by some Burmese Buddhists that being LGBT is the result of a transgression in a past life. Instead, he prefers to focus on the Buddhist concept of loving kindness. (Courtesy of VK Photography Burma)

Tomboys and trans men also face many challenges in Myanmar in relation to their faith. Min Min, who is Muslim, is accepted by his family as male but prays at home with his mother rather than going to mosque with the neighborhood’s men. Within Buddhism, the majority religion in Myanmar, serving briefly as a monk is a rite of passage for most males, while some females serve as nuns. Thar Thar said he wears a male longyi, or sarong, when visiting pagodas, but served as a nun instead of as a monk. Paing Soe San always wanted to serve as a monk, but noted that due to strict religious rules, “I have to be a nun.”

Some Buddhists in Myanmar believe that being LGBT is the consequence of a sexual transgression in a previous life. Paing Soe San believes this interpretation can be harmful, and that there should be more focus on the Buddhist concept of “loving kindness” toward LGBT in his society. “I did not choose to be LGBT. … The Lord Buddha gave me just this body and life,” he said.

Paing Soe San had his breasts removed in 2017 in Yangon, and has since modeled for magazines and featured in several video interviews. He said the response to his views has been overwhelmingly positive and that he now has more than 30,000 Facebook followers. “I always say I’m a trans man. … I don’t like to hide it,” he said. “Our gender identity and sexual orientation are nothing to be ashamed of; it is just the way we are.”

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