Myanmar’s ‘tomboys’ stride out of the shadows

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09/18/2019

In seventh grade, at school in a small town five hours’ drive north of Yangon, Jel Li developed a crush on another girl. Confused, she wrote her feelings down, but then burned the paper. “I felt I was abnormal. … I didn’t know what was happening to me,” said Jel Li, who has now adopted a transgender male identity. “Every day, I hoped I would change.” Jel Li’s life changed in 2012, when he was 19 and the internet became widely available after years of suppression by the military regime. “I searched on Google and I saw people like me,” he said. “Since then, I have accepted myself for who I am.” In addition to identifying as a trans man, Jel Li is part of a growing number of people in Myanmar who identify as “tomboys.” Biologically female, tomboys wear short hair and dress in a masculine style. Most prefer to go by masculine pronouns; some also identify as transgender men or lesbians. The term “tomboy” relates to gender identity rather than sexual orientation; however, tomboys interviewed by the Nikkei Asian Review said most are attracted to women.

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