Nat Nat Nwe was once arrested, stripped, beaten and held in a cell for 14 days just because she tried to walk home alone at night. The quiet 40-year-old is convinced she was targeted because she is transgender.
She says police accused her of being a sex worker, despite knowing she wasn’t working in the area. When she refused to pay the obligatory bribe, she was attacked and then arrested for defending herself.
“The police see LGBT people, especially transgender people, as people they can abuse whenever they need money,” explained Hla Myat Tun, of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trangender rights organisation Colors Rainbow. “They see them as a walking ATM. If they need to fill their quota, they arrest transgender sex workers, or gay guys. They harass them, they arrest them, even gang-rape them in the police compound. Before Colors Rainbow, nobody even documented this.”
Legally, people in Myanmar cannot change the gender they are assigned at birth. People who have intercourse and are considered by law to be of the same sex can technically be charged under section 377 of the penal code, a piece of colonial-era legislation that criminalises “unnatural sex”.
Colors Rainbow, an organisation dedicated to ending discrimination against LGBT people in Myanmar, is challenging perceptions and changing lives
“[Section] 377 is not widely applied,” Hla Myat Tun said, “but because of the existence of the law, LGBT people are seen as criminals.” In practice, LGBT people are more often targeted using the “darkness law” – another archaic decree that allows police to arrest people for “acting suspiciously” or being in a “suspicious” place.
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Colors Rainbow is conducting research into the impact of discriminatory law on LGBT people in Myanmar. Based on their findings, they plan to propose a new anti-discrimination law, including a specific provision against discrimination on the grounds of gender expression or sexual orientation. The organisation hopes the country’s liberal government – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – will be interested in adopting such a law.
“People have high expectations of the NLD to deliver this law, given the fact the NLD vows for diversity and democracy,” said Cheery Zahau, a researcher on the project, adding that activists have been campaigning for change for “long enough”.
The organisation believes that empowering LGBT people to challenge legal and social discrimination themselves is fundamental to change.
Colors Rainbow offers training that discusses gender identity and human rights, and teaches advocacy skills, as well as providing free legal advice, particularly to those who have experienced police violence.
The organisation is also training journalists to write more tactfully about LGBT issues, talking to religious leaders about taking a more sensitive approach to LGBT people, and working with the education minister to bring sexuality and gender sensitivity training into schools.
Five hundred LGBT people are enrolled in the organisation’s nationwide programme. “It’s about changing how LGBT people perceive themselves,” said Hla Myat Tun, “from victims to agents of change.”
Nat Nat Nwe participated in the pilot programme last year. She says it changed her life. “Now that I know there are some laws to protect me, and some places I can go for legal advice, I am not afraid any more,” she said. “Now we find the solutions, we find ways to sue people who do bad things to us. Whenever I face being beaten up by the police, I know how I can stop them. I know which organisations I can approach, where I can ask for help from lawyers.”
Nat Nat Nwe is now working as an advocate for other transgender women, including many sex workers in Yangon’s Hlaingthaya township, where sex workers are frequently arrested, beaten, tasered and assaulted by the police, or abused by gangs.
In Pyay town, to the north of Yangon, Chan Chan, 24, also participated in Colors Rainbow training. He now lives as a man despite having been assigned female gender at birth, but it isn’t always easy.
“In grade 10, I wore a male longyi [sarong] to school. When a teacher saw me they ripped it off publicly,” recalled Chan Chan. Soon afterwards, he became so depressed he dropped out of school. At the age of 15, he tried to kill himself.
Chan Chan encountered Colors Rainbow through a chance meeting with another transgender man who has since become a close friend. “We are like brothers,” he said. Like Nat Nat Nwe, he is now working as an advocate and speaks of the useful practical skills he has learned, but he also says the programme improved his self-esteem.
Chan Chan feels that the impact of discrimination is compounded by poverty. “For example, some of my friends are not educated so they do harsh labour. Their daily wage is really low. For a male worker, say 3,000 kyat [about £1.60] – for a female worker who does a light job, half that. Transgender men have to do the same job as male workers, but they get the salary that women are paid. Whenever they complain the boss says, ‘You are biologically female. If you don’t like it, quit.’”
A key part of the training, Hla Myat Tun explained, is simply making LGBT people aware of their legal and human rights.
To an extent, Myanmar has been suspended in time, with all discussion of rights and equality inhibited by the authoritarian junta government who ruled the country until recently. A dense tangle of archaic, discriminatory laws left behind by the British hasn’t helped. But things are changing, slowly.
“Since the country has opened up, people have started talking about LGBT rights. But the general society still needs to become aware,” said Hla Myat Tun. “Many people misunderstand LGBT communities as asking for special rights, but we are just asking for equal rights as human beings.”