Each summer time, this a part of central Myanmar hosts the cross between a standard non secular gathering and homosexual satisfaction competition, which has develop into a key occasion for the LGBT group in a rustic the place those that don’t conform to conventional gender concepts are sometimes shunned and “gay acts” stay unlawful.
This yr, as many as 5,000 folks from throughout Myanmar traveled to the competition, many drawn by the promise of assembly with the occasion’s famed Nat Kadaws, mediums whose identify interprets as “spirit wives.”
Nat Kadaws are believed by their followers to speak with spirits on behalf of worshippers, transmitting their needs and inquiries to spirits, earlier than relaying the spirit’s steerage or recommendation to believers, to resolve their downside. Nat Kadaws additionally carry out dances to have a good time the spirits and unfold luck, normally in elaborate costumes and make-up.
“Individuals may need completely different difficulties, corresponding to physiological wants, like meals, garments and shelter, their enterprise, or relationships,” considered one of Myanmar’s most outstanding spirit mediums, U Win Hlaing, instructed CNN. “I talk about with supernatural beings easy methods to resolve their issues.”
The medium — who has carried out in 9 international locations together with Thailand, Singapore, France and Japan — is a celebrity amongst “Nat,” or spirit, believers.
Hlaing has greater than 100 assistants, together with a masseuse, safety guards and cooks, who put together meals for each Hlaing and followers, in addition to the medium’s ever-full crimson wine dispenser.
Hlaing has additionally earned an award from the federal government, for a $300,000 donation and different contributions to Buddhism.
Addressed by each the feminine honorific “Daw” and the male “Ko,” Hlaing mentioned “I had the sensation I used to be completely different from different children, rising up.”
Hlaing is considered one of many outsiders who’ve discovered a house on the Spirit Pageant. “Culturally, it’s a long-time custom that straight and homosexual folks come collectively at this competition,” Hlaing mentioned. “It isn’t only for gays, it is for everybody.”
Spirit Wives, Hlaing added, “may be male or feminine, homosexual or straight,” including “so long as they’re skilled, their gender id doesn’t matter,” after expertly making use of a double set of false lashes.
For Myanmar’s LGBT group nevertheless, the competition has develop into an annual haven, in a rustic the place a colonial period regulation — part 377 of the penal code — nonetheless bans gay acts.
‘My mother and father beat me’
Whereas not extensively enforced, LGBT folks in Myanmar face a better frequency of arrests, in addition to different discrimination, and lots of endure home abuse, in line with Colours Rainbow, an NGO devoted to advancing LGBT rights in Myanmar.
Chit Ya Aung — the 30-year-old’s identify means “let’s love” in English — is aware of this solely too properly. “I felt like I used to be a woman since I used to be born,” she mentioned. “My mother and father beat me for being girly.”
Raised as a boy, however figuring out as feminine, Aung left residence and joined the Nat Kadaws at 14, ultimately assembly the person she now regards as her husband at a Spirit Pageant eight years in the past.
“I’m a dancer, he’s a drummer. After assembly a number of instances, and making eye contact, it felt like there was one thing particular,” she mentioned.
Whereas Myanmar doesn’t permit same-sex marriage, beneath native customs, communities might acknowledge a relationship as professional if seven homes to the east and west settle for it.
Aung’s household got here round to each her id and her relationship, lately calling her residence for a reunion and welcoming her husband.
Regardless of figuring out as a lady, Aung describes herself as homosexual, relatively than transgender — a much less frequent id in Myanmar due partially to the dearth of entry to gender affirmation surgical procedure within the nation. Solely those that can afford to are capable of get the costly procedures, largely carried out in neighboring Thailand.
Social prejudice towards transgender folks additionally add to the challenges they face, on high of these skilled by different members of the LGBT group in Myanmar.
“As soon as they establish themselves as trans folks, it’s the hardest half,” mentioned Hla Myat Htun, deputy director of Colours Rainbow.
“If you’re (a) homosexual man or lesbian lady, and you might be … not likely expressing your self within the office, you might be advantageous,” he mentioned.
Those that outwardly specific a noncomformist id face “lots of discrimination, or completely different sorts of mistreatment,” Htun added, notably from colleagues or supervisors.
As Myanmar’s economic system continues to open up, attitudes to its LGBT group are persevering with to alter. Greater than 250 native corporations have signed as much as the UN International Compact, which incorporates adhering to international human rights requirements. This doesn’t apply to many native companies, nevertheless, mentioned Htun.
“I discovered it very exhausting to get a job, so I run my very own enterprise as a beautician,” mentioned 40-year outdated The The Darli, who sports activities lengthy hair and smoky eyes.
Darli — addressed as “brother or sister” — made a 20 hour-car journey from the Ayerwaddy Delta for the final ten festivals, with restricted funds.
‘Now no one says something’
Whereas many overtly homosexual, lesbian and transgender folks in Myanmar battle to seek out work, religious problem-solving is usually a profitable enterprise, with some Nat Kadaws incomes as much as $7,000 in 4 days.
“Of their complete life, when they’re younger… they have been seemed down on due to their id,” mentioned Htun. As Nat Kadaws although, “they’re worshiped” with out discrimination and stigma.
And in distinction to the previous, with senior Nat Kadaws guarding their identities even on the Spirit Pageant, many youthful followers and apprentices are overtly homosexual.
“I need to dance extra at Nat festivals, as a result of I really like to bounce,” mentioned 25-year outdated Pyae Pyae. He mentioned life for homosexual males in Myanmar is getting simpler yr by yr, touching a vivid pink ruby band on his ring finger.
“We did not get married, however we lived collectively secretly,” he mentioned. “Now no one says something, and we are able to keep at each mother and father’ properties.”
Whereas Pyae’s father was a maritime pilot, and his mom needed him to develop into one too, he insisted on pursuing the Nat Kadaw path, starting as a dancer, a transfer which initially value his mother and father’ help for him going to varsity.
“Now my mother and father surrendered,” he mentioned. “No matter I dig, I dig.”
Battle goes on
Again at Hlaing’s short-term compound, two youthful males hurriedly laid out Hlaing’s array of lipsticks, the ultimate contact of make-up for the opening ceremony. Hlaing opted for mauve.
After an hour of beautifying, the medium was prepared for the 1000’s of heaving followers ready within the packed temple. Screams worthy of a rock star erupted as Hlaing entered, with festival-goers clamoring over each other and punch-ups erupting between these vying to get close to him.
Hlaing danced for the spirits, earlier than blessing thick wads of financial institution notes price roughly 40 cents every and tossing them into the frenzied, sweating crowd.
The present was spectacular. However for Myanmar’s LGBT group — swinging between widespread discrimination and occasional celebration — when the music stops, the struggle for on a regular basis equality, dignity and respect goes on.