When Mya Thet Mu was a little girl, her refusal to conform to traditional feminine roles and clothing led people to call her a tomboy – in Myanmar, the word is used as a euphemism for lesbianism. Her parents, hankering after a second son in a family of six daughters, treated her like a boy. It was an unusually accepting stance in the deeply conservative country and meant she was shielded from much of the social opprobrium that many LGBT people face growing up.
With few economic opportunities on offer under the junta, Mya Thet Mu joined the millions-strong diaspora of Myanmar migrants who were forced to seek work abroad. She crossed the border into Thailand in 1996 when she was 20, and found jobs in the country’s vast fish processing industry.
She spent six years going from one factory job to another, taking on the heavy physical jobs usually assigned to men. She lived openly as a lesbian and says she never encountered discrimination. She later started working with various rights charities on issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender health and education.
Then came Myanmar’s transformation in 2011, as a military-backed government swept away many of the restrictions that had cloistered the country for decades. A network of organizations that had worked with Myanmar migrants in Thailand began moving across the border.
Mya Thet Mu, now 40, was offered a job back in her hometown of Dawei with one of the rights groups, an LGBT advocacy and awareness-raising program called Colors Rainbow. She moved back to Myanmar in 2015.
But the joy of homecoming has been tempered by a sudden exposure to prejudice. Despite the fact that civil rights groups are now able to operate in Myanmar, gender roles are deeply entrenched and lesbians still face animosity and discrimination.
My parents loved me because they didn’t have many boys. Only the eldest is a boy, the rest of us are all girls. That’s why I’m like a son. I refused to wear girls’ clothes even at a young age. My parents are no longer around, but I don’t have any problems with my siblings. What trouble there is, is with my aunts. They say, “If you’re dressed like a man and behave like a man, don’t come to our house.” If I have to go and give them something, I’ll just leave it at the entrance. I say, “I’m wearing trousers so I’m not coming in.”
In Thailand, if you want to live out in the open as a gay person, you can. In Myanmar people only have two boxes – men and women. If you don’t appear to fit in one of these boxes, then people think it’s not normal. What we’re [Colors Rainbow] trying to do now is training that stops families forcing their children to behave one way or the other.
Life is particularly hard for lesbians in Myanmar. If a family mistreats a gay man he can go and live with friends. It’s more difficult for women. No matter how their family treats them, they live at home despite the beatings. It’s hard for them to stand on their own feet. Another thing that’s exhausting for them relates to work. Gay men and transgender people are often more acceptable in our society, and many of them have legitimate businesses [often in things like makeup design or wedding planning]. Lesbians are still considered more of a taboo and find it much harder to work.
Just take the experience of a friend who was working in the marketing department of a company. She wasn’t promoted after a year, but those below her got promotions. Her boss said, “Can you wear women’s clothes if you go to meetings in Yangon? If you can do it, I’ll give you a promotion.” She quit her job because she couldn’t get a promotion. She’s now selling chicken eggs.
If I meet lesbians, I tell them to learn vocational skills so that they can get jobs and survive. Learn crafts, learn machinery. Then you can feed yourself.
One time, a doctor acquaintance visited and I took her to the pagoda. At the steps, there was a group of young men coming down. My hair wasn’t very short, but I was wearing a man’s shirt and trousers. Those young men said, “I really want to kick people like this down the stairs.” Even though I’m older, sometimes youth have these thoughts.
I pretended not to hear. If I respond, it would escalate. I didn’t see this type of discrimination in Thailand, and I lived there for 19 years. I had been back in Myanmar for less than a year when I was abused.
I was happy to be able to come back to Myanmar. At the beginning, we only gave training to LGBT people, but we decided that doesn’t work as well, and now we mix the groups up.
You have to have very tough discussions. Most young people are not familiar with LGBT people, so they are afraid initially. On the first day, they don’t know each other well. But on the last day, when we ask them to reflect – it’s a three-day course – they give feedback like: “I used to hate these people so much. But now that I’ve been in close quarters with them, I realize their characters are not what I thought. I will share this with my friends, too.”
Let’s say I’m in love with a girl. The girl faces problems with her family, who ask her why she’s going out with a lesbian. Even though I know they hate me, I try and be someone they can rely on. That’s how I win them over. No matter what the people say of me, I’ll help them if they’re in need. What I really treasure is my name and reputation. Not to have a bad name. To have done something for this group of people, among ordinary people, among the lesbian youth. That’s my most precious thing.
A version of this story originally appeared on The Kite Tales.