Embracing My True Colors My Unspoken Journey as a Gay Individual


A commentary by Nai Bee Marn*

Since the 2021 coup, numerous LGBTIQ people and communities have been participating in campaigns and movements against military rule. Many have been involved in activism dating back years or decades even though this has meant hiding their true selves or living double lives. In this commentary, a civil society activist shares his personal journey as a gay man with a vision of equality and justice in Mon State.


Article by

Nai Bee Marn
Image by author

Living as a gay person in a conservative society can be tough. It's hard to be yourself and pursue your dreams when your family, friends and relatives hold prejudices against gay people. They might not understand or accept your true self. You might feel pressured to hide your identity, which can be stressful. That is what I am facing right now.

Hidden Truths: My Silent Struggle Through My Formative Years

I am ethnic Mon, and I was born in south Ye Township in Mon State. Growing up as the youngest son with a single father was a journey filled with love. My mom passed away when I was just nine months old, leaving my dad to guide me. When I was six, I felt unique. Unlike other boys, I didn't enjoy typical boyish things. Instead, I found joy in a diversity of interests and activities. My childhood self was a curious soul, exploring a world beyond usual gender norms, embracing what made me happy. However, my family doesn't understand the concept of being gay or gender identity.

When I was in primary school and later in middle school, I began to feel like I didn't quite fit in with the other boys. This led to many challenges. I vividly remember a time when an older boy, two years my senior, grabbed my bag and tossed it into a pile of cow dung. He called me hurtful names like "fag”. On another occasion, he demanded to see my answer paper during an exam. When I refused, he waited for me at the school gate after class, attempting to kick me. He threatened me, saying that if I told a teacher, he would make things worse.

As a child, I was scared to confide in teachers or my family about these incidents. I felt like I had to hide my true self because my family expected me to conform to normative standards of masculinity. They repeatedly told me to "act like a boy" and "behave like a boy”. This pressure to fit into a certain mold made me keep many things hidden, even though I desperately wanted to share my feelings and struggles with them.

As a high school student at the age of 15, I felt immense pressure because I was gay. I had to choose to hide my true self and pretend to be straight. This meant putting on a façade and pretending that I was strong, even when I was hurting inside. There were times when I cried in secret, wondering why I was gay and how I became this way. During this period, I began to experience trauma and isolation, facing discrimination from some of the boys in my class.

As a human being, it's only natural to fall in love. However, when I fell for another boy, it presented a whole new set of challenges. I was terrified that my friends would find out that I was gay, so I kept my feelings a secret. One-sided love is a difficult path to walk. You can't express your love openly, and you don't have the right to be with the person you love. I had to maintain my silence because I felt different, and it was painful to hide my true self throughout my time in high school, right up until I completed the eleventh grade.

Seeking Hope Abroad: My Journey Through Uncharted Paths

After completing eleventh grade, I faced a tough decision because of my family's financial struggles. They couldn't support my further education, and things became even more difficult when my dad had an accident and couldn't work. Only my sister and grandmother were there to provide, and it wasn't enough.

So, I made the difficult choice to travel to another Southeast Asian country illegally. This journey was filled with threats and challenges. I distinctly remember one harrowing part of the trip along the Myanmar-Thailand border. A broker sent me on a small boat to a remote island with no food for two days. After that, another broker came to take us across the Thai border.

While we were on the river, heavy rain caused the boat's engine to fail, making the river-crossing journey even more dangerous and uncertain. As the Thai border police were also patrolling in the area, the boat driver rushed us to hide under fishing nets. There were about 20 of us hiding in that cramped space. Faced with risks of both arrest and drowning, we could barely breathe.

Thankfully, I and two others from our boat made it to the Thai side. The broker then separated those staying in Thailand and those who were going to neighboring countries. I was destined for one of these neighboring countries, and the challenges continued as we had to navigate border patrols and be cautious every step along the way before arriving at our destination.

Fortunately, once I arrived in our hoped-for country, I reunited with my elder brother, and we both began working at a Chinese restaurant there. We worked there for nearly three years. However, our journey took a difficult turn when the Immigration Department arrested us because we traveled illegally and without any valid travel documents. They initially placed us in a crowded cell where we had to spend seven days.

In that cell, I faced challenges like having to undress completely for showers, which made me uncomfortable around the other prisoners, especially the boys. We were about 80 people in one block, and there were no spare clothes. After those seven days, they separated my elder brother and me, sending us to different jails. This was emotionally challenging, and I felt lonely and afraid.

The jails were categorized into two types: one for those under 20 years old, and one for adults. Before my brother had to move to another jail, he knew that I was fearful and he encouraged me not to be afraid in his absence. As we were about to be separated, I couldn't sleep throughout the entire night. My brother had to leave early in the morning to move to the adult prison, while I was scheduled to go in the evening to the juvenile prison. He didn't try to wake me up, but I knew he was leaving, and we exchanged silent goodbyes. After our separation, we didn't see each other for nearly a year.

Living in jail was like hell. There were many challenges. Sexual harassment was rampant there. In jail, each dorm had 10 people, and I was the youngest one in my dorm. Some people in my dorm were very rude, ordering others to serve them, such as by cleaning their beds and washing their plates. As for me, I had to be hyper vigilant all the time, such as when taking shower. I vividly remember one man who was taller and stronger than me. He tried to follow me and grab my private areas. I fled, was traumatized, but I remained silent, and I did not tell anyone what had happened.   

After having spent six months in the juvenile prison, I was transferred to a detention camp, where we were kept outdoors under inhumane conditions. Normally, such detention does not last long and serves only as a transition between jail time and release. But for undocumented migrants, the duration of this detention is unclear, and our fate often depends on whether we receive help from our respective country’s embassies.

I cried each and every day and tried to avoid other people. Eventually, after four months, a representative from the Myanmar Embassy came to the prison. They established contact with my father, and arranged for me to travel back to my country. I lost so much weight in prison that by the time I returned home, my weight was only 42 kilograms. Upon my arrival home, I took a three-month mental break and did not go anywhere. Then later on, I decided to continue my education.

Healing Through Civil Society Work

When I returned to Mon State, I had the chance to encounter my cousin who used to work at a Mon youth organization. They invited me to attend a youth conference as a representative of our village. This conference opened my eyes to a world of knowledge and opportunities to move forward in my life journey. Inspired by this experience, I applied to become a member of the youth organization and was fortunate to be selected.

Over the course of two years, I deeply engaged with the organization, focusing on youth empowerment and community development. I delved into critical topics like social, political and gender issues and even picked up new languages. This experience allowed me to enhance my skills and, most importantly, discover my passion for contributing to youth organizations.

In my work, I've met many people who, like me, struggle with their gender and sexuality. Some are afraid to speak out about it, while others blame themselves for being gay. Many face challenges with their families, friends and communities. This reminds me of my own experiences, particularly the pressure from my family to marry a woman and the scrutiny of my friends regarding my behavior.

To be honest, it's challenging to hide your true self in a community that isn't well-informed about the lives and experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people. Even now, I'm working on building my confidence and skills to address the fact that I am gay. However, the community I live in is very conservative, especially my dad, who often uphold rigid beliefs about how a man or a woman should behave.

Nevertheless, all these experiences have taught me the importance of patience and understanding. It's essential to educate our families and communities about who we are and to be true to ourselves. While it may be a tough journey, which will take time and great effort, we can hope for a more accepting and inclusive society where people of all sexual orientations can live without fear or judgment. My involvement with Mon youth and civil society activists gives me faith that we can work towards this together.

Political Recognition and Visibility

In Mon communities and beyond, there is a growing recognition of youth as key agents of change. Youth, whether they are straight or LGBTIQ, are playing an important role in the community and in the current political crisis in Myanmar. They are contributing to and leading the different movements for political and social transformation at regional and national levels. With this, the Mon community is witnessing more and more young people engage in social and political activities but, sadly, LGBTIQ youth remain invisible, if not excluded altogether.

Meanwhile, the military took power in February 2021 and, combined with the Covid-19 pandemic, Myanmar became a country filled with social and political problems. Consequently, the key elements of the country are moving backward along with the main pillars of governance, such as health, education, economy, environment and development. There are human rights violations everywhere, no security, and few education or job opportunities. People and different youth, including young women, LGBTIQ youth and others, are facing many challenges related to security, economic hardship and livelihood problems as well as access to proper education and protection from rights abuses. Some have been left with no option but to take the arduous journey out of Mon State in the search for a better life away from their homes. This is similar to the situation I was in many years ago when I began my own journey.

Since the military coup, numerous LGBTIQ people and communities have been participating in campaigns and movements against military rule, such as the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). In these collective efforts to fight for democracy and human rights, many LGBTIQ people are protesting openly, proudly expressing their diverse identities and demanding recognition for this. Other LGBTIQ people may not be as open or visible in their involvement, but they too are an important part of this struggle for equality and justice for all.

In Mon communities, there are currently no LGBTIQ organizations, and there are no organizations working on LGBTIQ issues. Due to the political crisis and security situation following the coup, some organizations have even fled the country and moved to more secure areas. As a result, LGBTIQ communities are left with even less opportunity to network and find support. There is no space or shelter for them to seek safety, discuss problems or find health support. There is also no peer to peer counseling for them, and no dedicated humanitarian response.

Despite all these challenges, some LGBTIQ people are still involved in meaningful political work for the wider society, even though this means hiding their true selves or living double lives. On the other hand, these challenges have also prevented many other LGBTIQ people, especially those who are young and poor, from getting involved in their community out of fear of rejection or discrimination.

The Way Forward

In Mon society, many people, including myself, still face difficulties for being gay. Some aren't ready to come out and are forced into heterosexual marriages due to cultural norms. As parents and society, it's vital not to discriminate against them and understand that being LGBTIQ is normal and should be accepted as such. Even if we cannot fully understand them, the least we can do is to do them no harm.

If one of your family members reveals that they are gay, don't rush to force them into a different mold. Take time to listen to them and understand their gender and sexual preferences, and that cultural norms create many challenges for LGBTIQ people. Being LGBTIQ is a natural part of who they are, and they should not be forced to hide their true selves. Let's bring about change by adopting a new perspective, following human rights principles, and working together to make our society and country more inclusive.

In addition, it's important for authority figures and decision-makers to respect the human rights of LGBTIQ individuals; they shouldn't be limited in education, politics, the economy or the workplace; and their abilities and their work should be appreciated. They too contribute to the development and future of Mon society. LGBTIQ people deserve the same chances as straight individuals in every sector, including policy development and implementation.

Imagine how many more people we could collaborate with, if we can create space and opportunities for LGBTIQ people to realise their potential. Imagine how much stronger our movement could be, and how much more effectively we can transform our country for the better!

In conclusion, we are all the same. We are equal human beings, no matter what our gender or sexuality is. See and respect us as human beings with talents, ideas and dreams for a better society.

Let's embrace each other as equals and offer a helping hand to encourage us all, saying: "It's your choice to embrace your identity, and being gay is a natural aspect of who you are." Instead of quick judgments based on appearance or abilities, let's celebrate our unique qualities and skills.

My main message is that a community and society with diverse gender identities can lead to a happier, more peaceful and better world. Social harmony includes all gender identities, contributing to a brighter future for everyone. Let's come together and make this world a more beautiful place for all.


*Nai Bee Marn (a pseudonym) works with civil society organizations in Mon State.

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