Being transgender can mean a world of possible gender identities, where people move from one gender to another and can also put aside the choice of male and female for one of “third gender”. Across Asia, including in Myanmar, many societies have a place for a third gender identity, and increasingly they are legally recognised too.

Yet transgender people bear the brunt of the stigma and discrimination against the LGBT community. They are usually much more visible, and less able or less willing to simply “blend in”. They can also face discrimination within the LGBT community itself because they embody the stereotypes of effeminacy that many gay men shun.

When we were making the selection for this year’s &PROUD LGBT Film Festival – held in Yangon in January – some people in the community felt we needed to increase the content about non-trans lesbians and gay men in order to demonstrate to the Myanmar public that being gay did not always mean being effeminate, and that being a lesbian did not always mean being a “tomboy”. For the festival we tried to keep a balance and reflect all parts of the LGBT community in Asia – and show the diversity of sexual and gender identities that are available.

More worryingly, because of this discrimination, in most countries the rate of physical assaults on transgender people is much higher than among the general population. In Myanmar we don’t have good data on violence against transgender people, but the most recent big police activity against the LGBT population in Mandalay in 2013 was overwhelmingly focused on the transgender population.

Moreover, because of discrimination transgender people may be cut off from families or find employment difficult. Some transgender people may have no choice of employment outside sex work, which will also throw them into situations where they are at risk of violence. When law enforcement can use existing discriminatory laws to target the transgender population, like they did in Mandalay, it becomes that much harder to insist on condom use with clients.

Over the past week many visitors went to Mandalay for the magnificent and hugely atmospheric nat festival at Taung Pyone. Many transgender natkadaws – one of the professions where trans people thrive in Myanmar – as well their assistants and followers would have travelled from all over Myanmar to be there.

It’s an incredibly lively and electric environment, and it is attractive to think that it exists as a safe place where transgender people are totally secure. However, when I was walking there last year on one of the final evenings with a transgender woman, a stranger came up and groped her. She gave as good as she got and hit right back, but it was a sign that even in supposed safe places transgender people are at risk.

To protect against sexual and physical violence most transgender people look to legislation to protect LGBT rights. In Myanmar, where same-sex relations are criminalised under the British-era penal code, this kind of protection is some way off.

There is another path, which is to look for protection under legislation on violence against women. That is what Myanmar civil society organisations have been discussing and

lobbying for during consultations on the draft law on the Prevention of Violence against Women.

To date, though, these efforts have been resisted by lawmakers. The draft law which has been developed only covers biological women. That means it will cover “tomboys” or women who take a masculine role, but not men who have become women. One argument is that the law is meant to protect women, not LGBT people.

But there may be something more at work too. May Sabe Phyu of the Gender Equality Network (GEN), which has been arguing to include transgender women, feels that their inclusion under the protection of this law might be seen as a tacit sign of approval of the LGBT community. And there is some pushback from within the women’s rights movement. Some people feel that because talk of women’s rights is new for many people, to add LGBT rights will cause a rejection of all of it.

If, as looks likely, it becomes impossible to include transgender women within the remit of the Law on Prevention of Violence Against Women, what are the prospects for the future? As trans activist Yaya (David Aye Myat) says, the road will be slow toward the amendment of current laws and development of new protections.

As it moves forward, the LGBT movement will need to continue to work alongside the women’s movement to build bridges and show that violence against transgender women is part of the impact of unequal gender relations, and that transgender rights are equally part of the gender and human rights movement.

Billy Stewart works on public health programs in Myanmar and is a cofounder of the &PROUD Yangon LGBT Film Festival.