When Aung Myat Khaing was a boy, he liked to dress in women’s clothes and dance a little more wildly than most. He wasn’t the son his father had hoped for.
U Win Hlaing prepares for and gives a spirit ceremony in his South Dagon home on March 31. Photo: Thiri LuU Win Hlaing prepares for and gives a spirit ceremony in his South Dagon home on March 31. Photo: Thiri Lu
“I lived as a gay when I was young, but my father, who was a soldier in the Tatmadaw, didn’t want me to be gay. He scolded and punished me,” the 48-year-old said, speaking at his home in North Dagon, where he works as a spirit medium, or nat kadaw, and employs two apprentices.
“Because I liked to keep pretty, my classmates discriminated against me in school.” Bullies picked on him, and teachers too.
Although society has become more tolerant of gay people in recent years, many haven’t shaken an old and deep-seated bias against them.
But there is at least one aspect of social life in which gay people have found acceptance: in the role of the spirit medium, making offerings to the 37 spirits recognised in Myanmar Buddhist cultural tradition on behalf of clients who bring wishes for health, fortunes, relationships and more. As nat kadaw, some gay people have found honour and often community, though as society undergoes cultural and economic changes, it’s not clear that this professional avenue will always be open to young men.
“A gay youth faces discrimination when he’s a teenager or a child. Even at school they might be oppressed by their classmates and teachers. So a lot of gay kids don’t finish their education. They find it difficult to get a job and walk their own way without any help,” said Ko Hla Myat Htun, a program officer at Colour Rainbow, an LGBT rights group. “That’s why they work in beauty salons or as nat kadaws.”
When Aung Myat Khaing was 16, he dropped out of school and approached an elderly and popular spirit medium to show him the practice. “He had lots of gay people like me” around him, said Aung Myat Khaing.
Thin and wearing a white cotton T-shirt with a longyi, his little bit of hair tied up with a clip as he sat in a feminine pose in front of a massive shrine, with a big gold necklace and rings gracing his neck and fingers, Aung Myat Khaing’s appearance is suited to the spirit medium’s job. He has made it his sole profession.
At first, he struggled to gain acceptance from clients. It took him 10 years working alongside his teacher to establish a client base and stand on his own.
“Now people treat me politely and ask for advice about getting good business. I’m so pleased to live like this,” he said.
Now Aung Myat Khaing tries to give young gay men the same opportunities he had. Some of his apprentices live at his home. “I consider them as my children. I don’t want them to suffer like I did when I was young,” he said.
This is often the case among famous nat kadaws. Assistants may live in their house like a family home: They cook, eat and sleep in a dorm-style arrangement. Some leaders even look after their assistants’ parents by sending money.
U Chit Thein Maung, 52, started to practise as a 23-year-old. For 30 years, he has bowed to the spirits and prayed for the well-being of strangers to provide for his parents and other relatives.
“My parents wanted to work in the airport because our whole family lives nearby and works there,” he said, wearing a yellow shirt and decorated with conspicuously large gold necklaces and emerald rings. “But I didn’t want to be a government servant. I also told them that their salary doesn’t even cover the cost of my make-up!”
He said he is happy to know and work with other gay spirit mediums. They celebrate good times together, he said. “With them, I don’t feel neglected.”
Gay spirit mediums have practised in Myanmar since the 1960s, but until the 1980s it was common to see women in the role as well. Yet the appeal of the lifestyle for gay men evidently has been great enough that today there are more gay men than women practising.
At the same time, some male mediums said, the clientele have come to believe that their powers are greater than that of women mediums. At the Taung Pyone Nat festival – the most famous nat, or spirit, festival in Myanmar, which happens every August – participating mediums are about 90 percent gay people. Some are famous in their township, others across their city and some are even known around the world.
Medium U Chit Thein attributes some of their popularity to their care in choosing and developing the nat costume. “We are noted for our taste in beauty,” he said. “We invent clothing that is gorgeous to the eye.”
Spirit worship isn’t as common in mainstream Myanmar society as it once was, although among Buddhists it remains one of the most highly developed forms of ceremony and ritual. Young Buddhists today often don’t believe in the spirit tradition, but they haven’t abandoned it either.
“In this age of science and technology, I believe in what’s real and logical. My relatives are Christian and Buddhist, but they don’t believe in the spirits. But we also don’t say anything bad about the spirits because our elders do believe in and worship them,” said Aung Kyaw, 20, who lives in Kyauktada township.
At U Win Hlaing’s house, visitors can see a magnificent teak shrine that displays carvings of the 37 spirits covered with gold leaf and surrounded by offerings of bananas, coconuts, traditional snacks and roses in various colours. There’s room for an accompanying Myanmar orchestra (hsaing waing), and photos of U Win Hlaing in ceremony decorate the walls.
The 52-year-old was born to a Myanmar-Chinese family in Yangon but was raised by his uncle, a gay spirit medium. His uncle’s practice fascinated him, and as a 16-year-old he felt born to be one, too. Now he wears a costume featuring a sash, headband and anklet finished with real gold. He performs with five assistants and sometimes more guest mediums. He has taken the ceremony to Japan, Switzerland and France.
The complex and extravagant performances clearly cost a significant amount of money, both for the medium and the client. The price depends on what is requested, and no spirit mediums would say exactly how much they earn from one ceremony.
But in keeping with the rising price of commodities, they said the cost of worship ceremonies has gone up to at least K1 million. A one-day rental of an orchestra costs K150,000; a town permit can cost K30,000; a Myanmar Theatrical Association permit costs K15,000; and each assistant commands K20,000. In a typical ceremony, between six and 10 young mediums will perform.
Add it all up and it’s hard to break even, U Aung Myat Khaing said, even if the audience rather than the spirit leader pays the assistants.
“We prepare 100 bunches of bananas, 37 coconuts, 100 eggs, 10 hens, fish, flowers and five kinds of traditional snacks to offer the 37 spirits. And also we arrange rice, curry and some drink for the guests,” he said, adding that recently even rich people have become less willing to arrange ceremonies.
“So now we face a situation where the number of ceremonies is going down. I used to get two or three jobs a month in the past, but now I’ll only make one.”
As a result, it’s mostly only the most popular spirit mediums who can make spirit worship their sole source of income, and assistants can’t stand on their own, said Ko Hla Myo, a make-up artist who opened a beauty salon in North Dagon.
“Before, we didn’t used to need a permit to stage a ceremony,” he said. “One of my friends changed his career, though he performs with friends on occasion.”
Yet in the end, he said, no matter what one does to earn a living, it’s all about finding a lifestyle that lets a person be himself.
“If you are gay, whatever job you choose you are still gay. You can’t change how other people think about you,” he said. “The truth is we all are struggling to get some acceptance and to be liked by others. As for me, I am used to staying patient, and helping my clients and persuading more to come to me.”
The job, more a lifestyle, of the spirit medium has the advantage of offering its practitioners a community with shared interests – cosmetics, fashion, performance and more. They can live this way as long as the people of Myanmar believe in and worship the spirits.
U Aung Myat Khaing and other mediums in Yangon believe that the tradition won’t disappear.