Padded bras, corsets, tight skirts, long eyelashes, long hair and a love for colorful makeup: These are some of the characteristics often associated with transgender women who have not undergone a sex-change operation.
Unfortunately for these people, expressing the gender identity they are most comfortable with is frowned upon in many countries in Asia. In some, it is a punishable offense.
In Myanmar, which has recently opened its borders after decades of military rule, the rejection faced by transgender women can range from being told to leave the family home to outright violence.
“In Myanmar, compared with transgender men, transgender women face more discrimination and violence from society. The family kicks out transgender women from home,” said Ei Ei Cho, a 24-year-old transgender man who works as an activist for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) community in Myanmar.
Because of their visibility, transgender women in Myanmar receive the worst treatment. Besides abuse and sexual assault, arrests are common and made headlines two years ago when the police ran rampant and justified themselves on the basis of an outdated act, also called the “Darkness Law”, that enables police to arrest anyone “acting suspiciously”.
“People here believe that being a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is against Myanmar’s religion and culture. Most of the time, transgender women become poor and homeless and they end up as sex workers,” said Cho.
In a country trying to develop a new political system and grow one of the poorest economies in the region, the rights of transgender people are far, far down the list of priorities for many lawmakers.
“I’m not interested,” Win Htein, one of the closest aides of de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, said in an interview with The Daily Beast website when asked if the government plans to do anything about this particular group.
“(Myanmar) is not like the West. Gender issues are not important,” he said amid gales of laughter.
And yet, there is one profession recognized throughout the country that allows transgender women to thrive even in the midst of a community that does not want them: Becoming a nat kadaw.
The literal translation of nat kadaw is “spirit wife”, indicating that the person is married to a specific nat or “spirit”.
Nat worship has its roots in Myanmar’s animism, which predates Buddhism, the country’s dominant religion. According to tradition, most of the 37 most venerated nats were humans who met violent deaths. Shrines are built for these spirits and visitors will often see displays of fruits in different quantities depending on the nat’s rank.
Every village in Myanmar has a nat kadaw. They are believed to act as conduits for the spirits and can provide advice to worshippers on financial and marital matters.
“Nat kadaws are a lot like fortune tellers,” said Cho the activist. “Most of the people believe that the nat can cure their worries, create money, improve businesses.”
Cho said nat kadaws get paid around 10,000 kyats for one fortune-telling question. That is about $8 for a single question in a country where the minimum monthly income is legislated at less than $70.
Not only do these “spirit wives” get paid well but, as nat kadaws, transgender women find they are much more respected among the public.
“Most of the transgender women (have experienced) severe discrimination since they were young, so they have this drive to want the respect of the community. If they can claim they can be possessed by the nat, people have to worship them as nat kadaws,” said Hla Myut Tun, a program manager at Colors Rainbow, an organization dedicated to ending discrimination in Myanmar.
The role of nat kadaw was traditionally filled by females, but it has been rapidly taken up by transgender women abandoned by their families at a young age.
“Recently, transgender women started taking the position, because there is a widespread notion that transgender women are cleaner than females, because they don’t have menstruation. Therefore, it’s cleaner for the nat to possess these bodies,” said Tun.
During annual festivals, nat kadaws play a pivotal role and enjoy celebrity-like status. For example, for the eight-day Taungbyone Nat Pwe — a celebration bringing together tens of thousands of people and known informally by locals as the “gay festival” — the nat kadaws are in charge.
Every night, different stages host different nat kadaws and the ceremonies resemble music festivals. Offerings are given to nat kadaws, in the form of money, alcohol, fried chicken or fruits.
“I used to see such a nat celebration in my hometown. Some who were watching beside me suddenly became strange and they would start joining the nat kadaw by going onto the stage and dancing with the nat kadaw. People said they became like that because the nat was inside their body,” said Cho.
During the performances, nat kadaws go into a trance-like state as if possessed by the spirit.
“From a psychological aspect, this is where (transgender women) gain respect from people. Usually, they are not respected even as human beings (in wider society),” said Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, a nongovernmental organization founded in 2000 with the goal of empowering the people of Myanmar through human rights education.
“Once they are in that position, in that particular moment, they are regarded as a spiritual deity that also has some kind of supernatural power. They really like that moment and the respect given during that time,” he said.
Although becoming a nat kadaw is one of the few professions that can allow transgender women in Myanmar to thrive, earning respect is not guaranteed.
“They get high respect from people who believe in them. But from people who don’t believe in nats, they aren’t respected at all and still face the same discrimination,” said Cho.
There are few other professions in which transgender women are accepted and can succeed. Another is the theater, primarily as dancers, singers or both.
“We have a theater group founded by a group of transgender women. It was founded 60 years ago. The group is a well-known professional entertainer (troupe). They are liked by a lot of people because of their performance skills,” said Tun of Colors Rainbow.
“But when they come out from the stage, and when they walk around, they are not respected anymore. They become ordinary transgender women.
“Burmese people love seeing people on the stage and envy people on the stage, but that’s it. (Away from) the stage they don’t know how to respect them.”
Aung of Equality Myanmar agreed. “There are only three positions accepted in society for transgender women,” he said.
“These are: Becoming performers, beauticians and makeup artists. But outside of this, they are afraid to go beyond those limited roles. That’s why you can’t find transgender women in other sectors of society.”