With constant attacks on trans rights and even same-sex marriage, LGBTQ+ issues have returned to the center of political debates in the United States. There are even some progressives who argue that the issues of the LGBTQ+ community should be subordinated to issues of economic class, as if the two are wholly distinct.
Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ activists from across the world demonstrate how their struggle can be central to the struggle for broader social and economic justice.
Through the pseudonym Sunami a gay Burmese revolutionary spoke with LGBTQ Nation about his fight for equality.
“I believe that it is essential for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, to have equal rights,” he said in a Facebook message sent through his comrade going by the name Tom, “and I am standing up as an LGBT protest leader for these rights and fighting the military dictatorship in nonviolent ways.”
The seeds of revolution
Myanmar, also known as Burma, gained independence in 1948 and has been dominated by military dictatorship since 1962. It was one of the most isolated countries on Earth before a period of relatively free elections and limited democratic rights in the 2010s.
This was a time through which the military continued to control many of the real levers of power and upped its persecution against oppressed ethnic and religious groups, including a horrific and ongoing genocide against the Rohingya people.
However, it also has one of the oldest and strongest popular movements for democracy, which reemerged with the participation of millions after the military threw out the results of November 2020 elections.
It is this history of oppression and resistance that informs Sunami’s activism.
“Despite tremendous adversity and danger, LGBT activists have continued to fight for their rights and for the rights of all Myanmar citizens in the Spring Revolution,” he said. “We face the risk of arrest, harassment, and violence from the junta forces. The crackdown on protesters has resulted in many deaths and injuries, and our community has not been spared”
For example, prominent transgender activist Sue Sha Shinn Thant was sentenced by a kangaroo court of the military regime to twenty-five years in prison, allegedly for incitement, terrorism, and murder. She was sexually assaulted, tortured, and denied bras.
An alliance forms
The story of LGBTQ+ people in Myanmar today is no tale of unmitigated woe. There are countless members of the community like Sunami among the democratic resistance to the military junta. Some are involved in armed struggle and some in nonviolent protest. They are fighting for their own LGBTQ+ community and for the entire nation.
“Through our collective efforts, we hope to create a more just and equitable society for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Sunami said.
Alongside straight co-conspirator Tom, Sunami puts together nonviolent demonstrations in the Dawei district in the long southern-pointing geographic finger in southeastern Myanmar.
“It’s great working with him,” Tom said in a Facebook message. They are both members of the Democracy Movement Strike Committee for Dawei district.
“We consult each other and share… our thoughts freely and discuss the things we focus on together in our committee’s weekly meetings. The protests we organize in Dawei are centered around democracy, human rights, and justice.”
He continued, “Discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals is a serious problem in Myanmar, and we are committed to fighting against it as part of our broader efforts to promote equality and justice. We believe that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and that includes LGBTQ+ people.”
This collaboration between straight and LGBTQ+ activists isn’t just limited to cities. In fact, with the military having severely limited the liberation movement’s activities in most major urban centers, rural areas and towns are serving as a base for the resistance.
Zayar Phyo owns a small beauty parlor in Yinmabin, a poor rural township in central Myanmar. Since the coup two years ago, he has been leading daily protests in the hot, dry climate as part of the Spring Revolution.
Most of the area’s inhabitants are farmers or work in the local copper mines. They have been at the center of the liberation struggle against the coup, as they have continued daily protests demanding democracy and social justice despite harsh repression.
In addition to being a member of the strike committee which brings villages across the area together for protest every morning, Phyo leads protests in his own village each evening. He has to go into hiding on a regular basis.
The military recently occupied the neighboring village and chased out its activists. It has burnt other nearby villages to the ground for aiding local young people who are fighting back with homemade arms.
But Phyo continues his daily protests.
“We aren’t afraid… from the beginning until now, we are participating in all sectors– the underground armed struggle and aboveground protests… against the dictatorship,” he told LGBTQ Nation over Facebook.
Phyo was one of tens of thousands who recently joined the protests that broke out in Yinmabin after the coup. But he and other local LGBTQ+ residents soon stood out as among the most active and dedicated participants.
From the start, they were at the head of the movement, making speeches connecting their own experience of oppression to the struggle for democracy. Their arguments and the example they set soon won them the respect of their neighbors.
“In the rural areas people didn’t like LGBT before. Villagers thought that they were disgusting… that most people in same-sex relationships had AIDS,” Zin Mar Win, a straight woman from Yinmabin, told LGBTQ Nation over social media. “But when LGBT people joined the revolution, people started accepting them and working together with them. Now, they want to help them and encourage them.”
Since late 2021, villages around the area have held regular LGBTQ+ solidarity demonstrations. In this part of the world – where only five years ago few people had internet access and 10 years ago many didn’t even have radios – it is now common for farmers and miners to crossdress themselves and their children to march behind the rainbow flag to show their support for LGBTQ+ people and their respect for local activists.
This rapid transformation of local attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people has also encouraged some people to accept their own sexual orientation and come out of the closet.
Ma Khaing, a woman active in protests in another Yinmabin village, recently began a romantic relationship with another woman for the first time. Before seeing the example of Phyo and others, she had repressed her own feelings.
“This Spring Revolution made me more accepting of LGBT people’s sexual orientation,” she told LGBTQ Nation over Facebook. “They are doing great things, showing how brave they are and that they are capable of fighting the military dictatorship.”
“LGBT people are on the front line of civil resistance protests. They are also a part of armed resistance just like many other people… I began to think about it, and it dawned upon me that sexual orientation is just due to an unavoidable fate.”
Transforming the landscape
There is no way to know exactly how many LGBTQ+ activists are part of Myanmar’s Spring Revolution, but the work that they are doing alongside their straight co-conspirators is transforming the landscape for LGBTQ+ people in Myanmar.
“During the revolution, people have become more farsighted,” Phyo explained. “Before if someone was gay, people would taunt and tease him. Now people don’t discriminate against us anymore. They support us, they love us, and they understand us.”
Whether in the city or the countryside, change is afoot in Myanmar. Nevertheless, the activists there feel forgotten by the rest of the world.
“The military junta in Myanmar can do everything they want because they know nobody will help the people here,” Sunami said. “That’s a sad reality that reflects the current situation in Myanmar.”
He noted that “there have been condemnations and sanctions imposed by some countries and international organizations” but that the actions have not been “meaningful.”
“We need your help…We need your voices to join ours in calling for an end to the violence and the oppression that we have been living under for far too long.”
Will the global community respond?
Saurav Sarkar is a metro New York freelance journalist who writes most frequently about issues of labor, race, class, and borders.
Michael Sladnick is a Chicago-based activist who, since the coup, has learned Burmese over Facebook to contact and support grassroots activists in Myanmar.