Myanmar is a very conservative and religious country with around 89% of the population practising Buddhism. In addition, it has retained the old colonial homophobic laws inherited from the British Empire.
Whilst Queen Elizabeth in the UK recently “signed” gay marriages into law, 150 years ago, Queen Victoria oversaw section 377 of the 1860 Penal Code being passed into law, which criminalised sodomy with up to 10 years imprisonment and a fine. Although section 377 remains today (like similar laws in India and Sri Lanka), we couldn't find any recent enforcement of it.
Since 2010, the military government of Myanmar has made sweeping political reforms which opened up the country more, particularly press censorship. This has since allowed better reporting of LGBT issues and therefore with it a lot of development for the Burmese LGBT population, for example:
- Myanmar just had its first public pride party with thousands turning up to celebrate as part of its famous &Proud Film Festival.
- the first Burmese gay pride festival took place on 17 May 2012, commemorating International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia
- in November 2013 the popular opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, called on the government to decriminalise homosexuality and repeal of the homophobic section 377 laws
- the first unofficial gay ‘marriage' took place in Yangon in March 2014
- Myanmar's first LGBT film festival took place in November 2014 called “&proud” with over 1,500 attendees.
So, what's the gay life like in Myanmar?
We've learnt by now on our travels that even in quite homophobic countries like the Maldives, there's one rule for tourists and another for locals. Despite being a conservative country, we found quite an active gay ‘scene’ (for Asian standards) in Yangon.
We met local boy, Aung Zuy who told us what it was like growing up in gay Myanmar and also about gay life in Yangon. We have unfortunately had to use a different name to protect Aung Zuy's identity.
1. Mingalabar Aung Zuy, introduce yourself:
Hi Nomadic Boys! I'm Aung Zuy, 31 years old Burmese gay living in Yangon and a teacher for young children. Sorry for the anonymity but because of the homophobic and closed society I live in, I have to be careful to prevent this affecting my career.
2. Are you out to your friends and family?
My Yangon social circle is quite small and it didn't take them too long to figure it out. Not many guys my age are single. They are either married with kids or parading around the town with a trophy girlfriend. I refuse to be something I'm not, so people quickly reached the “he must be gay” conclusion.
With my family, they knew it all along since I was growing up as a child with my distinctive interest in lipstick and all other pretty things, including boys. But obviously with my career, I have to be careful so as to prevent it negatively affecting me. We still have some catching up to do.
3. What was it like growing up as a gay man in a country with a really oppressive military regime?
I don’t think the military regime was ever a factor in oppressing the gay culture. If anything, it would had only slowed down the fruition of the general public’s knowledge about modern homosexuality.
Burmese traditions and values have always been very conservative. Burmese culture in general is very sexually oppressive, so people have very limited views on what homosexuality is. Most people only consider transvestites, transsexuals and obviously effeminate persons as gay.
It really puzzles them to think two masculine looking men would only have eyes for each other, not for a woman. That’s changing slowly now in the cities thanks to Facebook and other social media.
4. Do you think the laws will change soon to be more inclusive?
I think the time will come soon. Things are changing here very fast. But there are still many fundamental things the country is catching up on first, like education and health care. As you know, same sex sexual activity is still illegal and in theory punishable by fines and possibly life imprisonment. Although this law is rarely ever enforced, its very existence is an insult to the LGBT community here.
5. The Burmese longyi (sarong): do you wear yours commando?
Ha ha ha you cheeky boys – wouldn't you like to know? Well the truth is that traditionally it's supposed to be worn commando and in the villages that's the real deal. But in modern society, it is considered offensive to go commando in urban society.
6. Are there any gay bars or parties in Myanmar?
My favourite is the gay friendly restobar called O'Thentic on Yaw Min Gyi Street. It's a French creperie and wine bar at the corner. Tuesday is the most popular night here with the gay community. They also have a drag show on the 2nd and last Tuesday of each month, which gets quite raucous!
There’s a monthly gay party called FAB hosted by Gay Yangon Events (YG) which is great fun. The FAB Facebook page will give more info about their next party. It attracts a mixed crowd of both locals and foreigners.
There is also a club called the Ninth Floor, which attracts mainly young locals and curious flamboyant gentlemen like yourselves! Hahaha. It's known locally as “JJ Disco” and any taxi driver will know it. It's located in the Mingal Zei group of buildings, north of the old British colonial area and close to Kandawgyi Lake.
7. Are there any gay-friendly hotels you recommend in Yangon?
There are a hotels in Yangon I know are very gay friendly from my own experience and from recommendations of friends who've visited me:
- Belmond Governor's Residence: I love Belmond hotels, they're super classy. They are also members of IGLTA and extremely gay friendly. Rooms are around $900 a night.
- Sule Shangri-La Yangon: also centrally located, close to most tourist attractions and super posh! Rooms are around $200 a night.
- Three Seasons Guesthouse: it's central with really sweet open minded owners and delicious breakfast. Rooms are around $30 a night
8. What do you recommend people do in Yangon?
The Swedagon Pagoda is a must because this is one of the most religious sites in Yangon. You can also visit the Bogyoke Aung San Museum for a lesson in Burmese history. I also love China Town, it's always buzzing with life, especially in the evening.
Foodies should check out the excellent street food of Yangon, including the many roadside tea stalls.
9. Finally, tell us about the Taung Byone Nat festival?
This is an annual religious festival near Mandalay during the full moon in August. The “Taung Byone Nat” attracts many transgender people. It's interesting because given the anti-gay laws of my country, the transgender community are more well accepted here compared to other countries in the West like the USA. It's a very colourful and fun festival to check out.
Watch our video Myanmar travel video as we made our way from Mandalay to Bagan, Inle Lake and Yangon:
Happy travels are safe travels