The Asian country of Myanmar saw its first-ever gay pride celebrations Thursday to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
In Yangon (formerly Rangoon), reports Agence France-Presse, hundreds of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their supporters crowded into a ballroom for a festival of music, performances and speeches. Similar celebrations were slated to take place in the cities of Mandalay, Kyaukpadaung and Monywa.
The events reflect a new trend toward greater personal freedoms in Myanmar, better known as Burma. The long-authoritarian country is slowly liberalizing under President Thein Sein, especially since recent parliamentary elections resulted in a sweeping victory for a formerly repressed populist party led by national icon Aung San Suu Kyi. Though a military junta still holds significant power over the government, the election marked a milestone in Myanmar's democratization.
There is still a ways to go, especially for the LBGT community. Gay relationships are technically illegal in Myanmar, even though the law is not regularly enforced.
For many, Thursday's gathering in Yangon was a momentous event. Aung Myo Min of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma told AFP reporters that such a celebration would not have been possible before.
In the past a crowd of people at this kind of event would be assumed to be against the government, taking part in something like a protest, he said. Now LGBT society has courage... and they dare to reveal their sexual orientation.
Unfortunately, the fact that the gay community has been compelled to remain largely underground has had grave consequences. A lack of awareness has led to a dearth of sexual health education, and now HIV/AIDS is emerging as a woefully unaddressed affliction.
A 2010 U.N. report shows that the disease is most prevalent among men who have sex with men. Little research has been undertaken to date to understand the scope and dynamic of HIV within this subpopulation, said the report. Stigma and discrimination remains a major issue for people living with HIV.
According to statistics recorded in the cities of Yangon, Mandalay, Ayeyarwaddy and Bago, a full 29.3 percent of men who have sex with men tested positive for HIV in 2010.
As awareness increases, health officials hope that more preventative measures can be taken. But according to the U.N. report, Myanmar presents many challenges in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
The population is spread over a large geographic area with diverse ethnicity [and] languages. The communications and transport facilities are poorly developed. The health system is poorly resourced with regard to infrastructure and equipment and there is a scarcity of appropriately skilled human resources, notably in rural and remote areas.
Furthermore, economic sanctions levied by the international community in recent years have put a serious strain on the country's healthcare infrastructure.
Still, AIDS/HIV prevention efforts have been in place in Myanmar for years; the government rolled out a national strategic plan in 2005. But its initiatives were frequently underfunded, and HIV awareness at the national level hasn't yet filtered down to make a real impact locally.
The Ministry of Health is in full support of prevention programs for these groups with high risk of HIV transmission, explained the U.N. report. However, the law enforcement agencies in the areas where the services are provided are not always fully aware of prevention programs.
That's why grassroots demonstrations are such an important milestone for the LGBT community of Myanmar. If gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual citizens feel empowered enough to advocate for better services, it could lead to greater awareness and, eventually, some concrete benefits in terms of healthcare policies and legal protections.
They will have more courage to reveal their sexuality, explained Aung Myo Min to AFP. If we don't discriminate against them and respect that diversity, the world will be more beautiful than now.