YANGON — Tin Soe was just four when he realised he was different to other boys in his neighbourhood, but growing up in conservative and army-ruled Myanmar, he struggled to be accepted as gay by his relatives.
"My granddad’s sister said that if I became a monk my sexuality would change. So I was a monk for three months, but my sexuality never changed," the 30-year-old said, asking for his real name to be withheld.
A repressive mix of totalitarian politics, religious views and reserved social mores has kept many gay people in the closet in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
Gay men have developed their own language as a "gaylingual" code to both signify and conceal their sexuality, said Tin Soe, who now works on HIV/AIDs prevention in Yangon.
"We want to be secret and we don’t want to let other people know what we are saying. We twist the pronunciation."
It’s a world away from neighbouring Thailand, where a lively gay and transsexual scene is a largely accepted part of society, which — like Myanmar — is mainly Buddhist.
"More Burmese are travelling to Thailand and see things there," said a 34-year-old working in Myanmar’s tourism industry. "But here gays are still looked down on, in a certain category."
Homosexuality is often linked to local religious beliefs about karma in Myanmar, Tin Soe said.
Many believe "we’re gay because we did something in a past life, that in a past life I committed adultery or raped a woman. But I don’t believe in that," he explained.
"It’s not like Iran where they are killed, but gays are a strange story in this country."
Traditionally, the only area where non-heterosexuality has been openly embraced is the realm of "nat" or spirit worship, a form of animism that is intertwined with Myanmar’s Buddhist beliefs.
Flamboyant and effeminate spirit mediums take centre stage at popular "nat" festivals throughout the year, but their acceptance here has also served to reinforce certain stereotypes of gay people in Myanmar.
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