Finding Caitlyn Jenner in Burma

In Depth

The Diane Sawyer interview with the then-Bruce Jenner was the first live television event I had watched in recent memory. I bought salsa and cleared it with my housemates. Their reactions to my request to commandeer the TV for the occasion oscillated between apathy and eye-roll, because at that moment, Bruce was still just a Kardashian: a tycoon of frivolity, paragon of all that is lowbrow, a designation generally synonymous with Big Waste Of Time.

But that was before one of the most iconic male athletes of his generation announced that he self-identified as a woman. That, “for all intents and purposes,” Jenner was a woman. History had not yet been made; though transgender Americans had become increasingly visible, no one had proclaimed their presence in the category from the red-white-and-blue mainstream.

Things changed that night. I cried into my salsa at the self-awareness Jenner exhibited when he (the pronoun Jenner requested to be used during the interview) mused on the irony of his relatively marginal role within the ubiquitous clan’s eponymous reality show, when all along it was Bruce with the big secret, the real story. It was touching and momentous, and still, cynically, I didn’t think much of its impact beyond the inevitable headlines that would ensue.

I was set to travel to Burma weeks later on a work trip, alongside my colleague Jennifer Whatley at World Learning, a DC-based organization with an international focus that deals primarily with development and education. We were there to visit one of the programs World Learning facilitates in Burma: the Institute for Political and Civic Engagement. iPACE, whose campuses are located in Yangon and Mandalay, is a program designed to bolster Burmese democracy by equipping its citizens with the basic, essential tools to take ownership of their country’s political system.

Imagine trying to navigate an election without ever having learned about the way your government works; without ever being shown by an objective party how to actually vote. For American readers, try to erase the “I’m just a Bill” cartoon from your memory—that little song you were taught about the preamble of the Constitution—and while we’re at it, any diagram your Government teacher showed you about the three branches of government and balance of power; the various duties of your elected and appointed officials. And to top it off, try to conceive of a society in which, until a few years ago, anyone who voiced an opinion that was in opposition of the ruling government was subject to indefinite imprisonment. That is what iPACE is trying to rectify.

In Yangon, my internet access was sporadic at best. When the now-iconic Vanity Fair cover debuted onto the internet, I saw it during a passive scroll-through of my Twitter feed, gasped audibly, and took a screenshot of the image to save it on my phone before I had to dash from my hotel and release my tether to the web. I’d inspect it, process it—kvell over it later, I thought.

Later that week, Jennifer and I headed to Mandalay after spending most of our time at the American Center in Yangon, where we observed iPACE students participate in a mock election exercise and have meaningful conversations about what democracy means to them—a practice that is vital for those who aim to be election observers in their burgeoning democracy, especially considering the word “democracy” could not be uttered in public just six years ago. Alongside those discussions, the students are free to speak about the very taboo subject of the plight of the Rohingya, Burma’s long-persecuted Muslim ethnic minority in the Rakhine state.

While in Mandalay we requested a meeting with an LGBT advocacy group called “The Help” in order to get a first-hand account of LGBT-related issues in Burma, which is a conservative, majority-Buddhist country with a generally accepted viewpoint that being transgender is punishment for grave sins committed in a past life. Ms. Phyo, the director of the group as well as a student at iPACE in civic and voter education, graciously obliged to see us, along with her friends and fellow The Help members, Lone Lone and Moe Hay Ko.

And so, one Friday afternoon—along with a colleague named Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee who went out of her way to serve as our tireless coordinator, guide, and translator for the day—we met the three women (Lone Lone and Moe Hay Ko identify as transgender; Ms. Phyo as transsexual) at a tea shop in Mandalay bustling with mostly local men slurping noodles and drinking Coca-Cola.

In the large outdoor terrace, Jennifer and I seemed to be their temporary armor: I couldn’t help but think that without the presence of Westerners at the table, the occasional look that was cast our way would have otherwise been an audible jeer—that the ladies might have been given grudging service from the staff, or maybe even none at all. Or sadly, realistically, someone might have called the police.

“When we go to a tea shop many people laugh at us, look at us strangely. We don’t feel comfortable,” Lone Lone said. “Usually people don’t want to socialize with us.”

Lone Lone, who is petite and bright-eyed, wore her hair in a ponytail during lunch, presumably in an effort to de-feminize herself in any small way, given the very public setting in which we met. In an email Ms. Phyo sent me once I returned back to Washington DC and wrote asking for clarification on their names, she described Lone Lone as, “the one who told you [about] her ex-educator life which was full with her pretending to be he. She quit her job because of obvious discrimination against LGBT by her superiors and she hated to live all the time with fear if they would find out who she really is.”

During a previous night out with some expats in Yangon, I’d heard that there had been an incident in Mandalay recently, involving the public humiliation of a transgender woman. When I brought it up to the ladies, they knew exactly what I was referring to and inferred that the incident was the least of it, really.

Ms. Phyo and Lone Lone, with the help of Khin, recounted to us that in Mandalay it’s not so uncommon for transgendered youth to be rounded up by the police under the bogus pretext of “suspicion of criminal activity.” Ms. Phyo said if transgendered people are seen in public after 10 p.m., they are arrested. About five days earlier, a transgender girl had been arrested around Mandalay’s central landmark, the moat, at night, they told me. “They said ‘she was trying to do something in the dark,’ so they arrested her,” Khin said. The woman was ordered to pay 50,000 kyats (around $50) to be let free.

The conversation continued in the same vein. Ms. Phyo and Lone Lone told us that whenever they tried to do human rights outreach programs in rural areas, a few people would come, see that they are transgendered, and promptly leave. Their group is surveilled and controlled by authorities. Ms. Phyo talked of the high rate of kidney disease among the transgendered women they know, from years of being terrified to use public toilets due to the abuse and intimidation they incur in either ladies’ or men’s bathrooms.

In 2013, there was an intense police crackdown on the LGBT community in Mandalay. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, a particularly harrowing incident occurred on July 7, in which about twenty plainclothes men—police and others—arrested and assaulted a group of gay and transgendered people who were gathered outside a local hotel. They were taken into custody, and once at the station, the 11 detainees were stripped naked, photographed, forced to “hop like frogs,” and were subject to other physical and psychological abuse.

Detentions of LGBT people continued to occur that year, and many victims were forced by police officers to sign pledges stating they will not gather in public or wear women’s clothing.

Moe Hay Ko, shy and soft spoken, barely talked throughout the hour or so we sat roasting in the thick, engulfing Burmese heat; instead, she listened intently, nodded when appropriate, and looked deeply, personally hurt when Ms. Phyo and Lone Lone talked about the arrests and the discrimination and dealing with monks, who think that they must have been sexual abusers in a past life.

“I’m curious,” I began with slight hesitation. “Have you been keeping up with the Caitlyn Jenner news… you know, the Kardashian… (I didn’t know what other word to use) father?”

All three women were silent.

“Have you heard of the Kardashians?” I tried again, to more silence. It turned out they hadn’t.

That’s a good thing,” Jennifer said, and she wasn’t wrong.

But we tried to explain Caitlyn Jenner anyway. Granted, it’s a challenge to convey the magnitude of the Kardashian empire to someone unaware of their virtual omnipresence in the western world, but they got an idea once we underscored how big of a deal it was-—an explanation which involved the deft translation of words like “big gold medal Olympic star” and “cereal box.”

“To have a transgender woman on the cover of one of the most glamorous women’s magazines is a very big deal,” I reiterated. “Everyone is talking about it. It’s on all the news stations.”

And then, once I was sure that they got it, I showed them the cover photo on my phone.

Ms. Phyo was the first to see it. She gasped, as I did earlier, but in a different way: hers was a vital gasp, a post-suffocation-burst-of-oxygen gasp, the kind of explosive realization you see in videos of a deaf person hearing music for the first time. What she saw fed her something essential to her being. On her face was pure glee. “Call me Caitlyn,” she cooed, reading the text from the magazine cover.

The ladies were giddy with excitement. Lone Lone grabbed the phone from Ms. Phyo next. Her bright eyes shone brighter, and widened in awe and a sense of possibility. Lone Lone showed it to Moe Hay Ko who smiled, really smiled, for the first time since sitting down.

They passed my phone around among them. One would grab it again to get a closer look—and then they held it together, as if the image belonged to them, as if it was a flag emblazoned with their crest, ready to plant in territory won after lifetimes of conflict.

“She’s beautiful,” they said. “That could be me,” they said.

When I got back to the States, I caught up on the aftermath of the Vanity Fair cover. I wasn’t surprised that the overwhelming popular response was lovely and supportive, because being publicly socially progressive is cool now, in certain milieus, in certain parts of the United States, thanks to LGBT activists, celebrities, artists, and politicians—and the allies who support them, even when it’s not fashionable. Comedians and talking heads who mocked Jenner over the past year during the more clandestine period of her transition were eating their words.

But then there was the usual noise in our tired cycle of headline commentary. “Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t represent the transgender community”; “She’s just doing it for the money and attention”; “Of course she looks great and is on the cover of Vanity Fair—she’s privileged enough to have Hollywood connections, the best plastic surgeons and wardrobe stylists.” There have been debates surrounding facial feminization surgery and what it really means to be a woman, and lots of other things I haven’t had the will to pay attention to because I keep thinking about the three ladies from The Help in Burma, and how they’d just really like to not have to endure maltreatment, physical harm, and potential imprisonment and legal repercussions for being who they are, and how an icon like Caitlyn Jenner can give them a kind of hope that renders more privileged quibbling immaterial.

In a repressive, underdeveloped or hyper-conservative nation, there’s a certain existential isolation you feel when you’re a member of an oppressed minority. Your options are limited: you can move to a country in which your identity is normalized or accepted (which is more expensive than most people can afford and subject to visa and residency regulations), leaving behind your family, friends, business network, and comforts; you can be at the frontlines of the cause (while knowing that it will take at least a few more decades before widespread, meaningful change begins to stick), running the risk of effectively martyring yourself. Or you could always live a lie and hide who you are, and suffer the consequences: depression, self-harm, substance abuse, suicide.

This is why visibility is important. Visibility is life-affirming, inspirational, and mitigates the despair of someone who would otherwise think they’re on their own.

And sure, of course, not every transgender woman or man out there has piles of cash and access to the Kardashian treatment in Beverly Hills operating rooms—not to mention the social capital to merit Annie Leibowitz’s attention and the cover of one of the most important publications in the sphere of American popular culture. But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. Caitlyn Jenner is inspiring to Lone Lone, who had to stop being a teacher, which she loved, because it meant having to hide one of the most fundamental aspects of who she is. And Caitlyn is a role model, too, to Ms. Phyo and Moe Hay Ko, who can’t stay out too late for fear of arrest, who are accustomed to sniggers and abuse and complete marginalization within their society.

The world needs trailblazers, people willing to stick their necks out after a lifetime of hiding in the shadows, and take the heat from some shouting goons, so one day, in a far-off country that some (most) of the Kardashians have likely not even heard of, a couple of ladies will be inspired to continue putting themselves at risk to persist in a fight that, more often than not, can seem hopeless and unwinnable. So that someone who feels utterly alone in this world can think, “If she can do it, so can I.”

Images via the author.

Rose Foran is the Senior Writer/Editor at World Learning, an internationally focused nonprofit based in Washington DC. She has previously worked as a researcher and writer across the Middle East and in Paris. Rose has covered the Syrian refugee crisis from Lebanon and Jordan for the UNHCR; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Ramallah and Jerusalem for USA Today; not to mention the frontlines of Paris fashion week from the cheap seats for the Associated Press. She holds degrees from Johns Hopkins University and L’Institut d’études politiques de Paris.

Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.

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