Confronting Karen homophobia in Burma

Prominent gay Karen singer Saw Yuri Galler is publicly challenging Karen Christian leaders over suspected homophobia. Yuri has accused the Yangon-based Karen music group Klo and Kweh, of which he is a member, of banning him from performing at a series of concerts in Thailand as part of their international fundraising tour.

Yuri, named after the Israeli spoon-bender, repeatedly contacted Klo and Kweh leaders for answers but got no reply. Close colleagues of the music group then informed him that he was being excluded because of his sexuality.

In response, Yuri appealed for help, starting a thread on the Karen Human Rights Group Facebook page:

“Almost two generations of our people have been denied their basic rights while being brought up in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. Our Karen young people do not get access to higher education and proper social benefits. We fight for it and we have been fighting and we will continue to fight for what our Karen people deserve. And as a Karen gay, I am going to fight for my rights to be protected and respected.”

He received a mixed reaction, with some comments indicative of fundamentalist Christian views on sexuality, such as this from Kathryn Nyo:

We won’t encourage or allow Karen people in homosexuality. All homosexual behaviour is sinful, regardless of the nature of the relationship. Homosexuality is a chosen, unnatural, abnormal, changeable, and perverted lifestyle, which is hated by God (sic).

Accusations of discrimination against Klo and Kweh then reached public prominence through an April 29 article in Irrawaddy Magazine’s Burmese language section.

The piece quoted popular Burmese author Nu Nu Ye Inwa, who spoke out in support of Yuri. She told the Irrawaddy that it would be good for homosexuals if society accepts them as women, because they have a feminine heart, think like women, and cannot be changed.

Nu Nu Ye has been connected to gay issues because her 2008 novel Smile as they Bow, shortlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize, dealt with issues of gender and sexuality.

The Irrawaddy article also led to a new discussion where arguments for and against homophobic discrimination are being played out.

Yuri, an active Christian, believes he can reconcile his ethnicity, sexuality and religion without contradiction. He blames the homophobia directed against him on particular conservative interpretations of the bible that need to be challenged, and he sees this as part of a broader fight that Karen people need to be confronted with as part of their struggle:

To make Karen understand sexual diversity and to make the community tolerant of different sexualities will take a long time. Conservative Christianity is powerful and entrenched in Karen society, so it will be very hard to change. Now I just want to stand up and start fighting for my rights and the rights of other Karen gays. I know so many Karen gays who are in the closet. This is because people do not trust themselves. If I didn’t believe myself and listen to my heart I would have stayed in the closet.

Yuri also hopes that his outspokenness can help other gay Karen come out. He has already received emails of support from some closeted Karen friends and members of a social networking site.

It’s a painful fight though. Yuri’s public challenge to Klo and Kweh has resulted in his mother being expelled from her church in Yangon. She was previously a member of the church committee.

Klo and Kweh is headed by Dr. Yaha Lay Lay La, a Yangon-based pastor and a Professor of Theology at the Karen Baptist Theological Seminary. He received a Doctor of Ministry at the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in the USA.

Dr. Yaha Lay Lay La, when contacted for this post, declined to respond to Yuri’s accusation, only saying that “as a spiritual person, I’m not going to comment but I believe that God will reveal the truth.”

Klo and Kweh were founded in 2001 with the aim to maintain, use and promote Karen culture through music. They mix traditional S’gaw Karen music with modern genres and have a strong following in Burma and the diaspora. Yuri has been a member of Klo and Kweh since their establishment. He was previously a performer on the government-run network MRTV-3.

Homophobia has remained publically unchallenged in Burmese Karen society until now. Ethnic identity is part of the Karen struggle for self-determination. However, battles over what it means to be ‘Karen’ has silenced gender and sexual minorities. We hope that Yuri’s challenge can support, in some way, the opening up of Karen identity so it can be a more inclusive term for diverse and multi-layered identities.

(Yuri was previously featured in a New Mandala post here)

About Violet Cho, Guest Contributor