A belief in the power of spirits has long co-existed with religion in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. The influence of spirits is thought to stretch over everything from business deals to car engines. Myanmar's biggest spirit festival has also become a rare host for the country's marginalized gay community. The six-day spirit or 'nat' celebration in Taungbyone village, around 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the central city of Mandalay, draws thousands of revelers every year in search of karmic reward as well as all-night parties.
Same-sex relations are criminalized under Myanmar's colonial-era penal code, and although the law is not strictly enforced, activists say it is still used by authorities to discriminate and extort. But taboos around homosexuality have begun to be relaxed after a quasi-civilian government replaced the military rule in 2011. Myanmar held its first gay pride celebrations in May 2012. In March 2014 a couple braved conservative mores to hold what they said was the country's first public gay wedding ceremony in Yangon.
AdvertisementMake-up artist Nyi Nyi, 29, from Mandalay, who puts his job on hold each year to sell flowers during the festivities. He said, "I have to sell flowers here because it is a tradition I inherited from my ancestors. Something bad happens if I do not come here." Like thousands of others who annually throng the narrow network of alleys and market stalls in Taungbyone he is here to appease the spirits of two brothers who are worshiped in the small village. But he is also drawn to the spirit festival as a gay man in conservative Myanmar where the vibrant festival has become a mecca for the minority community.
Gay people routinely suffer discrimination despite sweeping modernization in recent years that has started to create more openness. Nyi Nyi said, "I have been discriminated against at hospital and the police station. The hospital keeps us in (a) separate place because they think gay people are diseased. Police arrest us if we go out on the street after 8 pm."
However, at Taungbyone there is a warm welcome and many of the most well-regarded mediums are gay or transvestite, providing advice and a direct line to the spirits by day and spending evenings dancing in elaborate costumes as part of the celebrations.