A Burmese language translation of this article is available here.
Gay people in Burma are resisting homophobia and marginalisation through the creative use of new communication codes. In doing so, they are making a significant contribution to linguistic diversity in Burma and raising the visibility of their community in important ways.
‘It is important to publicise these codes created by gay people to show that we are creative and have a special ability to make new terms quickly, that are actively used in speech’ said Aung Myo Min, the founder of the Committee for Lesbigay Rights in Burma.
In this article, the term ‘gay’ is used because it is a popular self-identifier in urban, web-accessible areas, as is the term ‘homo’, both loan words from English. The term denotes some men who have sex with men, who can be varying degrees of feminine or masculine.
There are two broad categories of communication codes used among gay Burmese people. The first translates as ‘hidden language’, designed to disguise meaning from the straight world. It is only used when gay people talk amongst themselves.
The second category translates as ‘slang’, which is more open and has been adopted by parts of straight Burma, even being used by some celebrities. Gay slang is subverting contemporary Burmese in subtle ways and demonstrates the growing visibility of gay Burmese, despite ongoing homophobia. Examples of vocabulary in this article fall into this category.
Burmese gay communication codes are participatory. It involves giving new meaning to old words, and also changing basic words like ‘to eat’ so they are unrecognisable by those outside the community.
The language plays a key role in creating a sense of community amongst gay Burmese men, who are marginalised in Burmese society. The language is therefore important as a way of building a proud and defiant community.
The ‘hidden language’ has various practical uses. It allows people to gossip in public without repercussions, which is important for creating a sense of in-group solidarity. It also works as a defence against homophobia, which is common in Burma and comes in the form of physical violence, verbal abuse and other forms of social stigma.
Homosexuality has ambiguous legal status in the country. Under Section 377 of the colonial-era Penal Code of 1882-88, which is part of the inheritance of British colonial rule, ‘carnal intercourse against nature’ is punishable with imprisonment of up to ten years. While this law is not usually enforced, it renders gay men all the more vulnerable to police harassment.
Pagan yauk bu la? (Have you been to Pagan?) England la? (England?) In gay slang, geographical terms are also subverted. ‘Having been to Pagan’ means ‘being gay’, deriving from a bridge in Yangon that doubles as a popular gay hang out. ‘Being England’ means ‘going first’ as the receptive partner in gay male sexual intercourse.
The history of gay Burmese slang is uncertain but it is at least as old as when cake was introduced to the country. This is known because ‘cake’, used as an adjective, is the word for large-sized male genitals, introduced into gay slang when cake was a new popular phenomenon in the country.
Terminology for gay-identifying men has been a problem in Burmese and remains an ongoing debate. A chauk and gandu, the most common words for gay men in conventional Burmese, are derogatory but are still used by some gay men in remote places. A chauk literally means ‘dry’, but the reason for adopting it is unclear. One common explanation is that it is used to suggest that gay men do not have semen, that it is dry. People use the term as an insult. Aung Myo Min coined the phrase layn thu chit thu, which translates as ‘those who love the same gender’. Others simply use the identifying term mummy.
Demand for new words and terminology adopted reflects the changing culture of the gay community, as well as cultural shifts in Burma generally. One recent introduction to the language is the term cake moe poe thin tan (baking training), which means group sex. As group sex is new to Burmese gay culture, a term for it has only recently been needed.
Some words given new meaning derive from moments in popular culture. If someone says they love to read Shwe Thwe Magazine, previously popular amongst children, it means they like teenage boys. If someone says they read Tayza Magazine, previously popular amongst young adults, it means they like men from that older age group. Both of these magazines are beyond their heyday, but their linguistic meaning continues, as these words entered the language when the magazines were at their popular peak and young gay people honour this history.
One practice under contention is that a senior gay person sets the protocol for codes to be used in a conversation. When a younger gay person speaks to an older person, they have to follow the same codes as used by their senior. Introducing new codes in a particular conversation is seen as a sign of disrespect. Seniority comes from age and is enhanced by signs of status, such as wealth, popularity and networks.
This practice is now being questioned, largely with the help of online social networking technology. In one popular gay Burmese web forum, there has been lively debate, with users arguing that the language should be democratised so younger men can speak as equals with their seniors.
According to Yuri Geller, the initiator of the social networking site, this debate is important for the community. “People really want to practice this language in a democratic way and there are many people who want to get rid of these hierarchies. I think respecting elders is something that comes from Burmese culture, which is good to maintain, but it doesn’t mean that we need to practice this with our slang”.
As Burma’s gay communities continue to grow and better network, gay Burmese cultures and identities will no doubt keep evolving. Hidden language and slang will likely remain a key part of this process.