What It's Like to Be Illegally Gay in Myanmar
“My father was always trying to make an enemy out of me... He hated me for being gay."
When he's not on stage, David works as a professional make-up artist. All images by the author.
This story originally appeared on VICE Asia.
For David Morona, being gay in Myanmar meant being kicked out of his family home. Born in a small village near the border of Myanmar and India, David explains that he always knew he didn’t traditional stereotypes around masculinity. From an early age, he knew he was gay, but tried to hide it from his family.
“My father was always trying to make an enemy out of me," he says matter-of-factly. "He would beat me the most, even though I did nothing wrong. He hated me for being gay.”
When the hatred and violence didn't work, David's father started asking older men to take him out to bars—which, of course, didn't work either. "They hoped that would make me a man like them,” he says, but explains he only learned how to drink and smoke.
Finally, after the fighting with his father became unbearable, David decided to move to the country's largest city, Yangon, where he discovered a community where he could be himself.
I'm watching him prepare for Yangon’s PRIDE week. In a country where over 70 percent of people are practicing Buddhists and relatively conservative, the festival is one of the nation's very few platforms for the LGBTQ community. This year the Yangon city government gave permission for public events to be held in one of the largest parks downtown. And in this way, the festival wasn’t just a space for queer people to come together and celebrate their identity, but also for wider Myanmar society to come and show their support.
For Morona, performing at PRIDE marks a happy moment in a long journey. After moving to Yangon, he got a job selling makeup and working as a makeup artist. “At first, I would look at performers from under the stage and dream of being up there, but I didn’t dare,” he recounts. Then he got his first on-stage break in drag three years ago at a gay bar.
"My first performance was very nerve-racking," he says. "My knees were shaking and my heart was skipping beats.”
These days, you’d never guess Morona gets nervous on stage. He carefully contours his nose and then shimmies into his platinum blonde wig, its fringe just brushing his eyelash extensions. David doesn’t settle for a light dusting of foundation: it’s stage makeup or nothing. Then he struts confidently in his nine-and-a-half inch heels—although admits he tapes his feet so that they feel like space boots, rather than heels.
Anyone coming out in Myanmar faces enormous cultural and social barriers at every turn. According to traditional interpretations of Buddhism, homosexuality is "unnatural" and therefore a source of bad karma. It's also criminalized under section 377 of the Penal Code, which is a law that's rarely used, although its very existence illustrates how the LGBTQ community continues to be marginalized.
For Morona, performing in drag means an opportunity to leave this kind of fear and judgment behind. Putting on a wig and dressing as his idol Lady Gaga allows Morona to become a new character of his choosing. “I've stopped caring [about the negative comments]. When I drag up as Lady Gaga on stage I don’t hear those negative comments anymore,” he says, while Gaga’s song Poker Face plays in the background on repeat. “To me she is perfect, all her imperfections shows it’s okay to be a little crazy."
Later, I watch Morona perform onstage to Poker Face for around 12,000 people on PRIDE's opening night. It's a passionate, powerful show, and the audience cheers.
As he comes off stage, recoiling a rope he used as a prop during the performance, his wig sparkles beneath lights, along with his teeth in a wide grin. When I ask what he hopes for the future, he sighs:
“I just want people to accept others who are different. It’s not nice when people make really harsh comments. When I'm in drag, I am no longer the shy person I normally am, and then on stage people don’t know who I am. I only hear the applause.”
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