Two months ago I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to Myanmar. The first time I went to Yangon in January 2015 to share in work with scholars and students at the Peace Studies Center of Myanmar Institute of Theology. The second trip was this past September 2015 when I had the honor of traveling with President Molly T. Marshall of Central Seminary USA to participate in a human sexuality training workshop sponsored by the Peace Studies Center of Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT), and Colors Rainbow of Myanmar through the funding of the Arcus Foundation. The conference included people from multiple viewpoints who are striving for human rights and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
I am grateful for the opportunity provided by Arcus to “partner with experts, activists, and other brave advocates for change who confront injustice around the world.” Arcus identifies on its website their belief that respect for diversity among peoples and in nature is essential to a positive future for our planet and all its inhabitants. And that [they] work with experts and advocates for change to ensure that LGBT people and our fellow apes thrive in a world where both social and environmental justices are a reality.
The funds from Arcus provided the opportunity for Colors Rainbow, Central Seminary and The Peace Studies Center of MIT to invite community members, friends, faculty, and students to gather to study and discuss the needs of LGBT people in Myanmar and beyond. Colors Rainbow is an LGBT advocacy group in Myanmar that provides educational opportunities about public policy and human rights issues across the country. Hla Myat Tun, program manager, and Nay Lin Htike, program coordinator for Colors Rainbow lectured and facilitated discussion about the current situation for LGBT people in Myanmar. The Peace Studies Center of MIT under the direction of Dr. Maung Maung Yin, and with the assistance of Mana Tun work to carry forward the vision of the Center “to help our constituents and others focus specifically on how greater peace and justice can be sown and grown within and between our churches, our organizations and our people groups in Myanmar.” Central Seminary, under the direction of President Molly T. Marshall supports these efforts through lectures and discussions considering the intersections of theological ethics, biblical interpretation, public policy, and advocacy for human rights.
Each trip to Myanmar I am forever changed. The people work with a determination to make each day worthwhile in the midst of economic challenges, oppression and discrimination not known in many places in the USA. Participation in the conference offered me the opportunity to meet LGBT people and allies. I was surprised by the deep passion and connectivity I felt with and for the LGBT people of Myanmar. However, although the struggles are similar on the surface, they are upon closer examination deeply different. In the USA many LGBT people claim equality in healthcare, access to religious practices, marriage and adoption. Even though many enjoy their rights,, strong oppressive forces continue to exist that literally take the lives of many transgender people in the USA.
In Myanmar, I learned that discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation is considered legal and criminalization of sexual acts can lead to torture or the death penalty.
I knew the general status of LGBT people before I traveled to Myanmar. Yet, somehow I was changed when I looked into the faces of people who experienced discrimination and oppression in their daily lives. I felt in solidarity with them.
This is often true for many of us. We attend a march or a conference or read an article and feel moved to support a minority group such as LGBT people, differently abled individuals, etc. We define ourselves as allies in the cause for equality. Yet, I believe we do not support all groups equally. Most often we advocate for the group in which we hold personal membership and then add ally to our identity to care for the rest of the people. We allow ourselves to believe that one instance of solidarity grants us the right to call ourselves an advocate even if we never participate in another act that fights for equality.
As Timothy Murphy reminds us, “That’s not where our responsibility ends. I can’t write my silence off as, “Well, I know I’m an ally in my heart, and that’s what matters.”
For LGBT people this means, for example, acknowledging that the discrimination faced by lesbians is not the same as for gay, bisexual and transgender people. For LGBT people being an advocate and ally means realizing the fight for equality is not the same in Myanmar as it is in the USA. LGBT people must be allies and advocates for people similar and different from themselves by taking actions that will make a difference.
An ally feels a connection to the struggles of a person or group of people, empathizing with their challenges, while an advocate takes action to facilitate change for those who struggle. Both allies and advocates are needed within the movement for equal rights and justice.
As an advocate of LGBT people in Myanmar and the USA I must accept the responsibility that is linked with the equal rights movement. For me this means attending conferences focused on human sexuality, engaging in scholarship and teaching about the lives of LGBT people and the need for policy changes, and participating in marches for equality.
Recently a study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation identified Myanmar as first in the list of the ten most generous nations in the world. The USA is second followed by New Zealand and Canada. The study noted this was not a metric of governments or national institutions but the amazing generosity of individual citizens. The generosity of the people in each country was measured by the number of people who donate money, volunteer time or help a stranger. I can’t help but wonder what a similar study might reveal if the criterion were advocacy for LGBT people and fighting for equal rights for all people.
As advocates we are called to be active participates in acts of justice that bring about change. In this way each of us can make a difference in the fight for equality for LGBT people.
Rev. Dr. Julie J. Kilmer
of Theology and Ethics
Director of the Arcus Grant
Central Seminary Michigan USA
Arcus Foundation, www.arcusfoundation.org, accessed 11/28/2015
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, https://www.cafonline.org/about-us/publications/2015-publications/world-giving-index-2015, accessed 11/29/2015.
Keener, Craig, S. “Embracing God’s Passion for Diversity: A Theology of Racial and Ethnic Plurality” in Enrichment Journal, Springfield, MO: The General Council of the Assemblies of God, 2015.
Ling, Samuel Ngun, ed.,Theology Under The Bo Tree: Contextual Theologies in Myanmar, Yangon: Myanmar Institute of Theology, 2014.
Murphy, Timothy, “Ally Is Action, Not an Identity,” The Blog: Progressive Christians Uniting, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/timothy-murphy/ally-is-action-not-an-identity_b_8536518.html?utm_hp_ref=religion, accessed 11/21/2015.
“Arcus Foundation Facilitates Human Sexuality Training in Myanmar” in The Voice of Central Crafting the Future with God: a New Global Christian Community, Robin Sanbrothe, ed. Advent 2015.