The ballroom at the Excel tower in Rangoon, Burma was filled with people. Youth wearing colorful outfits mingled with older men and women in traditional Burmese dress. Everyone was looking around, eager and excited.
They had all come to take part in Burma’s very first celebration of International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO), which happened last week on May 17th. The celebration marked tremendous progress in a country that is often conservative and repressive.
Local and international media followed the event with a watchful eye, many voicing the same concern: Would it be possible to pull it off without any problems from the authorities? The organizers pushed forward and, as a result, the turnout was impressive. Over 400 people were crowded in the ballroom—members of the LGBT community, NGO workers, UN officials, local activists and media representatives.
“Homosexuality is not a sickness” was the unifying theme for all of the speeches and performances. A well-known Burmese make-up artist, Ko Mar, shared his story as a gay man in Burma who has struggled for acceptance within traditional society. He encouraged LGBT youth to maintain a strong sense of self-worth and to continue the fight for equality.
Burmese author, Att Kyaw, spoke about homophobia in Burmese society and explained that LGBT stereotypes imposed by the media often reinforce dangerous misperceptions. He reminded people that the movie industry in Burma uses gay men as comedic caricatures, rather than multidimensional characters.
A short drama called “World without Hatred” was also presented at the celebration. The film depicted the story of a gay man and the struggles he faces: ignorance from his family, isolation at school and marginalization by society.
One of the highlights of the event was a segment called “Paying Respect to Seniors,” featuring elderly LGBT people in Burma. One of the participants, a 106-year-old transgender woman living in Rangoon, was brought to the event by local youth. Almost in tears, she told the audience how pleased she was to see this event take place in Rangoon and how thankful she is.
Toward the end of the day, a music group performed “We Are All Equal,” a hit song from the first LGBT album produced by Colors Rainbow in 2009.
The rainbow, an international symbol of LGBT pride, tied the event to others happening around the world, establishing the voice of the Burmese LGBT movement as one that will not be silenced.
Myo Min is the director of Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, an AJWS grantee.