February 12, 2016 at 6:00 am EST | by Matthieu Baudey
Myanmar LGBT film festival raises visibility, challenges taboos

Kings 'n Queens, gay news, Washington Blade

The &Proud film festival opening ceremony (Photo by Matthieu Baudey)

November 2014 was a try, a first step, to test the public and authorities’ reaction.

After 60 years of dictatorship, long-secluded and conservative Myanmar was about to hear its LGBT voices for the first time. Hidden behind the protective walls of the French Institute, the first LGBT film festival ever organized in Myanmar took place, drawing more than 2,000 people together.

This year, the organizers wanted to make more space for the community to show its existence in a bigger, longer and noisier festival. Four days of movies, mostly documentaries, providing unique insights into the lives and challenges of LGBT people in Myanmar. Something you cannot see everyday, something under the radar of public opinion in a country still struggling with wider human rights abuses. Trying to raise awareness through movies, the &Proud festival is also a time for LGBT people to strengthen ties, reach out to others and let them know they are not alone.

Still, the event could not take place in a public cinema.

“It was our original plan,” Jeewee, one of the organizers said. “Because this is where Myanmar people go, almost everyday, it would have been easier to get them in. An LGBT film festival in the French Institute they don’t think it’s really their place. But to do it in a movie theater, we would have had to go through the censors, send 15 copies of every film, with translations and all. It was impossible. Films in English they are okay with because common Myanmar people don’t understand, but they don’t want them translated into Burmese. That’s where they draw the line.”

Homosexuality remains illegal in the country

The struggle of LGBT people is still a sensitive issue in Myanmar.

Homosexuality is a crime, says Article 377 of the penal code, or the infamous “sodomy law.” There even seems not to a very clear understanding of who LGBT people are.

Some organizations like Colors Rainbow try to advocate in favor of repealing Article 377.

“When we first met with members of the Parliament, they didn’t know what LGBT or gender issues were,” Hia Mya Tun from Colors Rainbow explained. “They see the world as male, female and abnormal. They told us it’s okay, we accept you even though you are abnormal. That’s not what we want.”

Maybe it was because Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won the elections in a landslide last November, but LGBT people’s hopes to be at last recognized as human beings have never been so high, even if the organizations have to start everything all other again with the new government.

“We believe NLD will be really respective of our human rights as LGBT people,” Mya Tun added.

Meanwhile, for four days, the audience was able to discover the daily struggles of the Myanmarese and Southeast Asian LGBT people unfolding on the screen.

Each year, during the Rainbow Reels workshop, three young people are trained to create their first movie. The exclusive presentation of these short documentaries is the main point of the festival: Empowering LGBT youth so that they are able to tell stories in their own way.

In the Burmese media; movies or commercials, homosexuality is just something to mock.

“There’s not even a neutral word for gay in Burmese, all terms used to describe us are just insults,” Ko Latt, a gay performer, explained.

Watching a documentary made in Myanmar, formerly one the fiercest dictatorships on earth, about LGBT people has a surrealistic touch. Common images of a gay couple in the most common things of their daily life seem priceless.

Daw Yu Marlar Myint is the director and star of “Dear Mom.”

She made the video to reveal her sexual orientation to her mother. In an anxious but simple fashion, she slowly comes to explain she is dating another woman. Facing the camera, her hopes are that her mother will accept her.

It does not always work like that in Myanmar.

Coming out is a risk that few LGBT people are ready to take, as they face rejection from society and their family as well.

“There is no space in Myanmar society for lesbians,” Aw Zar Moe, 22, a lesbian activist, explained. “Most of the time when they come out they have to run away from their family. Sometimes they have to sleep on the streets and can be sexually abused.”

Lesbians are a special case this year, as they are rather unheard of in the growing Burmese LGBT community.

For this edition, organizers decided to focus more on them, still a bit invisible in the activist scenery.

“There are a lot of lesbians out there but they don’t feel comfortable joining this kind of event and to show themselves. That’s true that gay men and trans-gender are much more active than us,” Zar Moe regretted.

More outspoken, transgender people are also the main targets of extremist religious groups, such as the Ma Ba Tha, whose leader, the monk U Wirathu, was nicknamed “the Burmese Bin Laden.”

The situation of transgender people in Myanmar is peculiar. If they are more visible and easy targets, they also seem to have a special space in Myanmar society. People think they have a direct link with the spirit world.

“They can become beautifiers, entertainers, mediums,” Moe added. “There is no traditional space for lesbians in Myanmar!”

And yet, to be openly gay in Burma may even start to be possible. While discrimination remains high, especially against those who are the most visible, trans people, the reaction of the public is changing. On social apps, LGBT people can see they are not alone.

“Now there is a network of people, they can give others support and coming out is something they can do”, Aung Myo Min, an LGBT rights activist and former rebel soldier, added. “The film festival is also a great help.”

For Tun, “I think it’s working. When we asked the people who were not aware of LGBT issues before coming to the film festival, it seemed it made them think. That’s exactly what we wanted.”

Kings 'n Queens, gay news, Washington Blade

A transgender dancer from the activist dance troupe Kings ‘n Queens performing during the festival. (Photo by Matthieu Baudey)

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