Born, raised and based in Yangon, Sakura began working as Assistant Project Officer at a leading HIV clinic for transgender communities several years ago. She joined MMTN in February 2023. Prior to her involvement in the HIV movement, Sakura worked as a make-up artist.
“I became involved in this movement because I wanted to help improve the health and education of transgender women,” and based on her experience operating in the field, Sakura wishes that her fellow community members could go beyond survival economies – from make-up and flower industries to sex work – and take a more prominent role in community mobilisation and movement for progressive change.
The barriers to such an aspiration seem insurmountable sometimes, as Sakura notes how transgender women are more socially and economically disadvantaged when compared with men who have sex with men (let alone compared with other groups more privileged due to their class, gender, or sexuality). She recalled her own lived experience, resembling those of other transgender women around the world, “compared to MSM, I’ve been more discriminated against by family members,” and “we often see that transgender communities seem to be less [formally] educated than MSM. It is generally harder for transgender people to find jobs or livelihoods.”
Noe Noe, who unlike Sakura was born and raised in a small city outside Yangon, then added, “many of my transgender friends in rural areas died due to HIV. Many of them don’t know about or don’t have access to antiretroviral treatment, or they may not have the means to access it.”
Difficulties in accessing healthcare, educational and livelihood opportunities mean that many transgender people6 have to rely on informal/survival economies such as sex work and/or drug-related livelihoods (such as small-scale drug selling), which remain highly criminalised in Myanmar, affecting people whose existence challenges the gender binary and/or heteronormative norms. This is why sex workers in particular are highly vulnerable to HIV infection and related risks.
Meanwhile, gender affirming healthcare7 is still lacking and largely inaccessible for transgender communities. Coupled with economic hardship and social stigma, this exacerbates the mental health toll of being transgender in Myanmar. Inequalities also prevail between those residing in urban and rural areas, or between more ‘developed’ and more remote areas.
“Gender norms tend to be more rigid in rural and remote areas. Boys get bullied in schools or rejected by family members for expressing more feminine traits, and they have not even started crossdressing yet. This has a lot to do with people’s limited understanding of gender and sexuality,” explained Noe Noe.
Such experiences of rejection and isolation tend to have long-lasting impacts on one’s life, and oftentimes these experiences extend well into adulthood. As added by Sakura, “transgender people tend to have self-doubt, maybe because since we were very young we have never really been accepted [by others]. Even when applying for a job at a place like MMTN, for example, we might have this inner fear that we won’t be accepted, even though we have the same skills as others who are not transgender. This is why many transgender people end up doing jobs typically reserved for transgender people.”
Another significant – yet often taken for granted – challenge is “the fact that many transgender people do not have mobile phones and social media due to their low living standards. This makes it hard to reach them and to involve them in peer-to-peer engagement and work,” added Sakura, illustrating how precariousness often stands in the way of sustainable collective mobilisation. Determined to change this, Sakura emphasised once again, “what’s most important for me is to help educate fellow transgender friends, and stress the need for better job opportunities so we could have higher standards of living.”
On top of all that, Sakura and Noe Noe underlined the importance of meaningful work for the transgender community, “our involvement in this movement is not necessarily about the money. It’s also about setting examples and opening doors for others from our community, In the past we were only pawns, but now we’re becoming role models,” said Sakura, passionately, after which Noe Noe added, “when I go out into the community and educate others, I am doing something big for society, not just for myself.”