It Ain't Great Being Gay in Mandalay

Photographing Burma's young LGBT community.

A couple of weeks ago, a beauty contest benefit for HIV-affected people was held in Mandalay, Burma's second largest city. A fundraiser for sufferers of one the world's deadliest diseases, attended by local LGBT rights leaders, might not seem like much of a story at first. But considering Mandalay was the worst city in the country for discrimination against gays in 2013, it's a positive step away from the events of the last year.

Those events were numerous, but there was one that stood out, if only for what happened afterwards. On the night of the 6th of July, a group of 12 gay men were detained. According to Win Min*, a 19-year-old who was there that evening, the men were arrested for the crime of "dressing as a woman". After being beaten and humiliated for hours in a bid to "correct their behaviour", they were released without charge.

Instead of keeping schtum about their ordeal, as the police had "suggested" they do, the group then did something that had never been done before in Burma's history: held a press conference to denounce the abuses they had suffered at the hand of the authorities.

Attacks like that are nothing new in Burma, where homosexuality is illegal. A law passed by the ruling British authorities during the colonial period prohibits "unnatural sex acts", and since becoming independent in 1948 no Burmese government has abolished it.

"Harry", dressed in a male longyi – traditional Burmese dress – at an event organised by Mandalay's LGBT community. Since she was a child, Harry has always “felt ridiculous” dressing as a girl and feels "free dressing as a boy".

For the past two years, however, Burma has undergone a shaky process of political transition towards what is being dubbed a "disciplined democracy". The notoriously authoritarian generals who have ruled the country with an iron fist for almost five decades decided to relinquish some of their control in 2011 and form a quasi-civilian government. This change has brought with it a relaxing of media censorship, the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the mushrooming of once outlawed civil society organisations. LGBT communities are now also organising themselves and, as a result, Burma is seeing the emergence of a small but burgeoning gay rights movement.

Unfortunately, Burma's LGBT community has more to worry about than just the authorities. Burma is a predominantly Buddhist country and religion plays a large role in daily life. The strong Buddhist traditions, along with decades of national isolation imposed by the military dictatorship, have reinforced conservative attitudes to things like homosexuality, and thus pose a bigger obstacle to the LGBT community than any outdated legal codes.

According to Aung Myo Min, founder of Equality Myanmar – the first organisation founded in Burma that seeks to address LGBT rights – many Buddhists look down on LGBT people as "strange creatures" who are paying in their present life for sins committed in previous reincarnations. Because of the stigma around LGBT people, many members of the community spend their lives negotiating their own identities in an environment where role models and support is scarce. In a society that is slowly opening up to the world, they are struggling to find their place in the new Burma.

Photographer Vincenzo Floramo shot a series of photos during the time he spent with members of Mandalay's LGBT community. A selection can be seen in the gallery above.

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Pauk Pauk makes up herself to attend the Academy Awards in Yangon. Pauk Pauk, a successful fashion designer who was born a man 42 years ago, is called the “fairy godmother” by her closest friends.

"TJ" poses behind an aquarium at a restaurant in Mandalay. He has disclosed his sexuality to his friends but hasn't told his parents yet. “I know my parents will understand me when they find out, because they love me so much,” he said. "But I'll wait until they ask me to tell them.”

"Harry", dressed in a male longyi – traditional Burmese dress – at an event organised by Mandalay's LGBT community. Since she was a child, Harry has always “felt ridiculous” dressing as a girl and feels “free dressing as a boy".

Harry poses in front of a Buddha shrine in her room at her parents' house. Her father, a cab driver, doesn't accept her sexuality, and her mother and grandmother only accept it reluctantly.

Hein Htwe Maung (or “Alex”), is a 17-year-old homosexual boy from a middle class family in Mandalay, waiting with his friends for his boyfriend's blood test.

Alex with his boyfriend in a hospital room in Mandalay.

Alex didn't fully accept himself until he met his current boyfriend at boarding school two years ago. Last year, after attending a workshop organised by an NGO, Alex decided to make his homosexuality public.

Alex thinks it will take time to change the Burmese mentality towards LGBT people, and says it's likely they will be discriminated “until the next generation”.

Zin Min Htun, shown in the picture, is a 32-year-old make-up artist from Mandalay. She prefers to be called Ma Pwint, using the feminine prefix Ma, but doesn't identify as either a woman or transgender.

Ma Pwint at her parents' home in Mandalay.

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