From Myanmar to Singapore, Why LGBTQ+ People Come Out to Protest
Ng Yi-Sheng | 24 March 2021
It’s been over a month since the 1 February military coup in Myanmar, and it still feels like a bad dream. From the senseless beginning—Aye Min Thant of The News Lens called it “The Stupid Coup”—to the current state of chaos, we’ve seen over 1,300 people arrested; protesters subjected to tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades in the streets; some even shot and killed with live ammunition by their own police.
However, in the midst of the sorrow and madness, I’ve also been feeling a deep sense of pride. The reason is this: queer citizens have taken on a highly visible role in resistance against the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar armed forces), forming a vital and respected part of the CDM (Civil Disobedience Movement).
You may have already seen the photos. Since 4 February, LGBTQ advocates have been marching with other pro-democracy activists every day, often carrying rainbow flags and rainbow signs printed with the objectives of the CDM. On 19 February, 1,500 queer folks marched 7 kilometres to Sule, the centre of Yangon, in lieu of the Pride Parade usually held at that time of the year: they have since vowed to repeat this action every week until the movement’s demands have been met.
Why are the queers of Myanmar fighting? To some degree, the struggle is about LGBTQ rights. Activists recall a major turning point at the 2015 General Elections, where Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was victorious over the Tatmadaw.
Queers for Democracy
— Kyaw Htet (@Htookyawhtet) February 8, 2021
“Before 2015, people really couldn’t accept the diverse expression of LGBT people,” says gay activist Ye Linn in an interview with Time. “Most LGBTQ+ people internalized the idea of being wrong people and accepted it; they thought they were abnormal.” After the win, however, queer community organising and activism flourished. There were successful efforts to convince NLD politicians of the importance of granting legal protections to queer people; even hopes that the Myanmar would soon see the end of the colonial sodomy law, Section 377.
Now, the coup has made all that impossible—how can one argue about queer rights with military officers who don’t even recognise the concept of human rights? So it’s only logical that recently empowered queer folks are taking to the streets bearing #LGBTQ4Democracy signs.
It also helps that these actions are creating queer allies. Speaking to Time, Sue Sha Shin Thant, a trans woman activist based in Mandalay says, “People see that LGBTQ+ people are brave and they applaud and encourage us. We receive love,”
But there’s something deeper than identity politics at stake here. As one activist interviewed by Outright International said, “At this point, LGBT people are not even thinking about special rights or demands. We are all in Myanmar going through the same thing together. LGBT or non-LGBT, our goal is to get rid of the dictatorship.”
— Hnin Zaw (@hninyadanazaw) February 8, 2021
It’s a sentiment that’s expressed by queer people all over the region who’re struggling for democracy. We’ve seen this in Thailand, where LGBTQ activists have taken a leading role in opposing the government installed by the 2014 military coup, with some even refusing to accept the regime’s offer of a civil partnership bill. Among the numerous individuals who’ve organised marches and demonstrations, one of the most prominent is gay student activist Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, founder of the Free People Movement, which campaigns for a new constitution, free and fair elections and the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut. In the words of Tattep’s boyfriend and fellow activist, Panumas Singprom, “We don’t want to grow old and have our kids ask us, ‘When the country faced injustice what did you do?'”
I’ve also seen this personally in Singapore, through the actions of my friend Jolovan Wham, an openly gay man who’s dedicated himself to working on a plethora of non-LGBTQ issues, including migrant worker rights, death penalty abolition and freedom of speech. He’s only just been released after serving a 22-day jail term (reduced, for good behaviour) for his role in organising a public protest in 2017, drawing attention to the government’s history of detaining activists under the Internal Security Act.
— Ali Fowle (@ali_fowle) February 8, 2021
And I can’t help but feel there’s something very queer and camp about the adoption of the three-finger salute among Thai and Myanmar activists. It’s an act of defiance made famous by Katniss Everdeen, the fictional protagonist of The Hunger Games—a quote from pop culture, an imitation of a strong, beautiful, bad-ass woman; yet devastatingly sincere—the very essence of drag culture.
The courage of rebels like this is inspiring—it makes me want to yell out all these queer anarchist slogans I’ve seen circulating on (US-centric) social media: “The First Pride was a Riot”; “Be Gay; Do Crimes”; “Not Gay as in Happy, but Queer as in Fuck You”. And I have tried to follow in their footsteps, in a small capacity, participating in an illegal public protest for trans students’ rights outside Singapore’s Ministry of Education this year. (We’ve been questioned by the police, but as of the time of writing, we’re still awaiting charges.)
Today: A protest by Singaporeans against transphobia in the education system. pic.twitter.com/ZRy14e9nHZ
— Kirsten Han 韩俐颖 (@kixes) January 26, 2021
Yet I also know that this kind of activism isn’t necessarily representative of the queer community. Here in Singapore, LGBTQ organisations such as Pink Dot and IndigNation have typically in fact been careful to stay on the right side of the law, attempting to win the respect of conservative lawmakers and members of the public using a strategy some have called “pragmatic resistance”.
Furthermore, queer folks who take to the streets in protest can face dire consequences. In Myanmar, multiple queer protesters have been arrested, such as Zaw Zaw, a gay man in the LGBT organisation Kings N Queens, who was taken from his own home during curfew by police who physically rammed down his door. In the town of Lashio, a lesbian and transgender group reported that they were visited by the police after their photos were circulated by the media; after this, they’ve been careful not to march with rainbow paraphernalia or makeup.
And there are real fears about the safety of LGBT people in prison. “Being a trans person, I’m concerned,” says Chrissy Ong, a Los Angeles-based Myanmar actress and activist. “If you look different because of your clothing, gender identity or appearance, you are vulnerable to all kinds of violations of police and authority.” Similar issues were described in human rights lawyer, Michelle Yesudas’ experience in Myanmar.
Most recently, during the armed attacks on 3 March—a day the protesters are referring to as Black Wednesday—we had the first confirmed case of a queer activist killed in action: 19-year-old Maung Htet Wai Htoo, a Moulmein University student and member of LGBT Rights in Myanmar.
Maung Htet Wai Htoo, a 19yo young queer the same age as Kyal Sin-Angel, a student at Moulmein University & member of LGBT Rights in Myanmar was shot to death yesterday #March3Coup by the #TERRORISTJUNTA
May the brave souls rest in Power
And their courage be contiguous ✊🏳🌈🙏 pic.twitter.com/4YCaa9QxM0
— ASEAN SOGIE Caucus (@ASEANSOGIE) March 4, 2021
Conversely, even if the revolution in Myanmar is successful, there’s no way to be sure the new government will honour its queer community by granting them rights. “For the short term, the public is acknowledging LGBT participation in the movement, but in the long term stereotypes and discrimination against LGBT people will still exist,” says Maung E.B, a trans man activist based in the city of Monywa to Time.
It’s a strange dilemma that compounds the sense of sorrow I feel, not only when I look at the state of politics in Myanmar, but also in Singapore and around the world. Too often, queer pro-democracy activists are fighting for a country that does not love them back.
But we have to remember, we’re not alone here. It’s the same story with feminists, leftists, ethnic minorities, economic and social underclasses. Throughout history, marginalised groups have battled against tyrannies that oppress everyone, only to be rewarded with a new status quo that oppresses only them.
Still, I refuse to end on a depressing note. In both Myanmar and Thailand (I dare not comment on my own nation), there’s a real possibility of dictators being overthrown; of queer folks and other victims of discrimination to win some better recognition of rights under democracy. Which is why I’m lending my voice—and some of my money—to trying to help these movements succeed.
We can’t think of a political struggle as a limited-time-only opportunity to grab privileges just for our communities, and no-one else’s. Nosiree.
We must fight because *everyone* deserves to be free.
Support the human rights defenders and marginalised communities in Myanmar by donating here.
Ng Yi-Sheng (he/him) is a Singaporean writer, researcher and LGBT+ activist. His books include the short story collection Lion City and the poetry collection last boy (both winners of the Singapore Literature Prize), SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century, Loud Poems for a Very Obliging Audience and Black Waters, Pink Sands. He tweets and Instagrams at @yishkabob.