Nat worship is an ancient tradition in Burma and has long been associated with the gay and transgender community, due to its elaborate feminine costumes.
The country’s largest spirit festival, Taung Pyome, held annually just outside Burma’s second city Mandalay, has become a rare opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people to dress and act freely.
“Gay people from different towns all come and gather here,” said Tin Maung, the head Nat communicator.
“In the spirit festival they don’t need to declare they are gay, they can just take part in the festival happily.”
Homosexuality is illegal in Burma. Although the law is not often enforced it is used as an excuse for ill treatment and the community suffers from discrimination and ridicule.
As a result of this discrimination, Moe Thiha, a spirit medium or Nat ‘kadaw’, said many members of the LGBT community choose to work in Nat worship.
“Most gay or transgender men work as Nat ‘kadaws’ and while working they can wear make-up,” he said. “Some become cosmetic artists.”
The festival does not just attract gay or transgender people, many single people attend looking for homosexual or transgender sex, no matter what their sexual orientation.
Health risks are a big concern as the festival has gained a reputation for promiscuity.
Hla Myat, programme officer for LGBT rights group, Colors Rainbow, believes the behavior exhibited at the festival gives the LGBT community a bad name.
“Many people abuse this festival. Many people are not really well behaved and they just come to the festival to hook up with straight or transgender people,” he said.
In Burma there is no distinction between being gay and transgender, and all terms used to describe the LGBT community have a derogatory tone.
Moe Thiha decided to become a Nat Spirit medium because he loves to dance and dress up, but he is still unsure of how to define himself.
“Yeah I’m kind of gay,” he said. “I live like a woman. There are lots of men like this. For me, I love to do art so maybe I’m a gay who wants to do art more.”
Festivals like Taung Pyome mean that, for once a year at least, judgement is put aside and anyone, no matter what their sexual orientation, can act freely and openly.
But even at this festival, understanding of the LGBT community is still limited.