Documentary on Harvard’s Burmese American basketball player

I came across a trailer for No Look Pass, a documentary on a Burmese-(Chinese)*-American basketball player by the name of Emily Tay, who plays for Harvard. The twist: she’s a lesbian, who’s caught in between her parents’ traditional views and her own aspirations.

Perhaps (heterosexual) marriage is a more pressing issue in the Burmese Chinese community than in the Burmese community in general. In college, I read some papers (12) on the unprecedented percentages of unmarried men and women in the country, as compared to other Asian countries. What forces are shaping these behaviors and marriage delays? It’s an intriguing question to ask. The UN reports that Burma’s mean age of marriage in 2000 was 27.5 for men and 26.4 for women, simply unparalleled among countries of similar economic standing (e.g. Cambodia and Laos).

The documentary certainly caught my attention. Sexuality is rarely discussed and little understood within the Burmese community. I know for a fact that many Burmese Buddhists use the 3rd Precept (abstaining from the vaguely termed ‘sexual misconduct’) as a way of justifying their homophobia. When I was temporarily ordained as a monk, I was specifically asked whether I was a male. Then, the ordaining monk clarified, and asked if I were gay (being gay apparently means one is not a “complete” man, in line with traditional Burmese views, even though it’s not based on Buddha’s direct teachings or the Vinaya).

To many Burmese, there exist only 2 kinds of homosexuals (simply put, their understanding of homosexuality is that it is essentially transsexuality): men who want to be women and women who want to be men, without understanding that one’s attraction to members of the same sex does not dispose one to transsexuality. Sexuality cannot be understood in terms of black and white.

Certainly, the issue of homosexuality is not talked about in the Burmese American community as well. The only time I’ve ever discussed homosexuality with my parents was when the campaign for Proposition 8 in California (which sought to eliminate gay marriage) was in full swing. My parents voted against Prop 8 only because they thought what happens behind closed doors and in private homes (in marriages and families) has absolutely nothing to do with them. But my own parents are vehemently opposed to homosexuality, in principle and practice. It’s been interesting to tread this fine line, as both my sister and I support such rights, along with the majority of folks in our generation.

Growing up, I didn’t even have the sufficient Burmese vocabulary to adequately describe homosexuals. (By the way, New Mandala has a nice article on gay slang in Burma). FYI, it’s lein-thu chit-thu (လိင်တူချစ်သူ), literally “same-sex lover.” I only knew of these slang terms:

  1. For gays: mein-ma-sha (မိန်းမလျှာ), a-chauk (အခြောက်), or gandu (ဂန်ဒူး)
  2. For lesbians: yauk-ka-sha (ယောက်ကလျှာ)

There’s a review at Hyphen Magazine. Anyway, I’m excited to see this movie sometime, if it screens in the LA area.

What are your thoughts on homosexuality’s place or role in Burmese society?

*I made the assumption that her family is Burmese-Chinese, because Tay (鄭) is a Hokkien surname, and because they’re seen worshipping at the Thien Hau Temple.