While attending a nat pwe – a festival devoted to the folk spirits, or nats, of Burmese tradition – Will Boast finds another side to the celebration:
I’d been told by locals that nat pwes were also “gay” festivals and to expect to see “many ladyboys.” The junta’s attempts to subdue nat worship had an unintended effect: the role of the nat wife [or nat kadaw] was embraced by an already marginalized group. Homosexuality is illegal in Burma and has been since its British colonizers instituted a late-nineteenth-century ban on “intercourse against the order of nature.”
Government restrictions opened a professional vacuum, says scholar Tamara C. Ho. Becoming a nat kadaw offered the achauk—a Burmese term for gay and transgender men—both “a vocation and queer visibility.”
Anthropologists differ in their readings of the gendered aspects of nat worship. Still, nowhere else in Burma, not even in vast, multi-ethnic Yangon, did I see any cross-dressing or open displays of affection between men. In a country marked by socially conservative, austere Buddhist ways, the nat pwe, it seems, provides a rare moment during which the usual rules can be suspended.
Update from a reader:
I’m a scholar of Burma, and I particularly appreciate your posts on Burma, a country which deserves well-informed reporting in the West. Will Boast says that he never saw any cross-dressing in Burma (other than at the nat pwe). There is at least one group in the country that consistently cross-dresses:
housemaids or domestic servants who work in Yangon. These are men who dress as women and who work in a typically female realm. Interestingly, all those I have seen seem to be of Indian (that is, South Asian) descent, rather than Burman or Southeast Asian. Boast may not have noticed them because these servants work indoors, use public transportation and live in humble circumstances. They are unlikely to appear at the hotspots increasingly patronized by foreign tourists.
Also, there is a burgeoning LGBT rights movement in the country, albeit a movement that so far involves the most elite, highly educated class and their allies in the expat community. To my knowledge, Gay Pride Day was celebrated for the first time in Yangon in 2013. See here.
(Image of male dancer at nat pwe festival by Flickr user Thomas)