Living trans

Men who want to be women are increasingly in the news in Myanmar but they face many challenges and a formidable legal barrier.


“It is just a dream for me to become transsexual,” said Ma Kyawt, 25, a dancer for the LGBT group Moe Kyo Hnget Nge Lay Myar Zat, which means “Monsoon Ushering Little Birds”. “I want to live as a woman, but my family has always struggled to get by and is not rich enough,” she said, referring to the cost of a sex change operation.

Discussions about transsexuality are becoming more common in Myanmar. The issue was in the news recently when Ma Htet, owner of the Pop Soul Beauty Salon in Yangon, returned from Thailand after an operation to transition from male to female, becoming one of the first people in the public eye in Myanmar to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

After the operation, which was completed in April, Htet told the media that the process was much more than just a physical change. She also had to undergo months of psychological preparation, as well as cover the cost of the transformation. After it was completed, Htet said she was satisfied with the changes to her body and, despite some criticism, her determination and courage has attracted praise.


Ann Wang / Frontier

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An indication of the challenges facing transgender people such as Htet is that under Section 320(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code, emasculation – the removal of the penis and testicles – is illegal.

“A person might want to change their gender, they might have enough money for it, but because of this law, a physician in Myanmar who does this operation is under great risk,” said Ma Zarli Aye, a lawyer, adding that transsexuals have little protection under the law in Myanmar.

Dr Lin Yadana Ko, a program associate at the International Organisation of Migration, said that any doctor found guilty of breaching Section 320(a) could be jailed for three years.

Transgender people are also commonly arrested under Section 377 of the Penal Code – the so-called sodomy law – that prohibits “unnatural offences”.

“Section 377 is more challenging for LGBT people in Myanmar than Section 320 because people who have sex with someone of the same gender can have action taken against them despite there being agreement,” said Lin Yadana Ko.


Ma Kyawt works at a beauty saloon on Yangon’s Kabar Aye Pagoda Road. (Ann Wang / Frontier)

For years, LGBT activists have called for the repeal of laws used to harass and detain members of their community.

“The government should amend outdated laws that damage basic human rights for the LGBT community in Myanmar,” said Ko Hla Myat Tun, project manager for LGBT organisation Colors Rainbow. “After amending these laws, every citizen can live without discrimination,” he said, adding that more than 100 laws need to be amended.

Ma Myo Ko Ko San, 22, represented Myanmar at the Miss International Queen 2014 pageant for transgender people from across the world, held each year at the Thai beach resort town of Pattaya. Myo Ko Ko San, who has more than 130,000 followers on Facebook, is planning to have gender reassignment surgery.

“I plan to be a transsexual within the next one or two years, but not any longer than that,” said Myo Ko Ko San, who began dressing as a woman when she was 19. “I think I will be more self-confident after the operation because if I feel like a real girl, I will be able to do what I want,” she said.

“My family told me to accomplish whatever I want to do, they don’t mind.”

Asked if she preferred to be referred to as a man or a woman, Myo Ko Ko San said it didn’t matter.

“Whether people call me male or female, that is just their definition, not mine. It is not that important,” she said.

One of the biggest challenges for those wanting to undergo the transition from male to female is mental preparation. A person who undergoes the transition must be completely comfortable about their decision to live as a woman – or a man – for the rest of their life.

Ko Oakka Thin, an LGBT activist, said it could be helpful for those considering gender reassignment to learn from others who had experienced the procedure.

“You need to ask many questions to those who have undergone the transition,” he said. “It is important to read a lot. For example, in Thailand some transsexuals have committed suicide because they feel pain when they have sex and had become depressed. So you need to consider thoroughly before changing,” he said.


Ma Kyawt gets ready backstage before a performance with her dance group in North Dagon Township. (Ann Wang / Frontier)

Lin Yadana Ko urged anyone considering sex change surgery to think very carefully.

“This is something that requires a lot of thought,” she said. “You have to live as a woman for the rest of your life. Are you willing to do that? This is not something that someone should do as a fad. You need to know precisely the criteria and laws for both those who are operating and those who are being operated on, for it not to cause any problems.”

Kyawt, the dancer, has given much to about the implications of a sex change operation.

“Becoming a transsexual may be troublesome for my health,” she said, adding that another concern was the cost of the operation. Kyawt works part-time as a dancer and if she stops work for the operation she will be unable to support herself. “If I can work for a day, I can eat for a day,” she said.

Kyawt’s voice choked with emotion and she stopped talking for a while. Then she said: “It’s such a long and complex procedure; I’m not sure if I have the courage to do it.”

Title photo: Ma Kywat is part of a transgender dance group called Moe Kyo Nyat Nge Lay Myar (Thunder Little Birds), which performs every Sunday night at a stage in Yangon’s North Dagon Township. (Ann Wang / Frontier)

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