Myanmar: LGBT activists have used the popular Nat ‘spirit’ festival in Myanmar to provide HIV related information and promote blood tests and condoms to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS among gay men in the country.
The annual spirit festival is a socially accepted gathering point for members of the gay community even though same-sex relations are socially frowned upon and legally publishable with jail sentences.
“We will give condoms out for free, and we will explain to them why they should use them and let them know how to save their health,” Mandalay Region Ministry of Health HIV officer Dr Kyaw Soe said before the week-long festival kicked off Aug 3, according to mmtimes.com.
HIV/AIDS in Myanmar affects mostly intravenous drug users, sex workers and men who have sex with men. UNAIDS reports that an estimated 0.6 percent of those aged 15-49 were infected with the virus at the end of 2012. About 180,000 of the 220,000 people living with HIV are above the age of 15.
Dr Kyaw Soe said using a condom was the most important preventative measure people should take because reports from across the country showed that the proportion of young people with sexually transmitted infections is higher in regions where condoms are more difficult to obtain.
LGBT activists also had a “sexual diseases clinic” available, where anyone could receive treatment or a check-up at some of the festivities taking place in Mandalay’s Madaya township.
The main festival that honors the nat (animist spirit) brothers Min Gyi and Min Lay, takes place in the village of Taungbyone which is about 30 kilometers north of Mandalay.
It is here that thousands of gay and transgender men and women gather to celebrate, drinking, dancing and fraternizing free from being accosted by authorities.
This is because people believe that the brother spirits have human characteristics, wants, desires and needs that are considered derogatory and immoral in the local understanding of Buddhism, the country’s main religion.
Gays and transgender men and women usually reviled the rest of the year are revered during the festivities which include loud music, shaman processions and spirit mediums and go on for a week before culminating during the full moon of the local month of Wagaung (August/September).
It is common for people in Myanmar to build small shrines or spirit houses dedicated to ‘land Nat’ who were displaced by the construction of houses or other buildings or by using land to plant crops. The owners or tenants of the buildings or land make a daily offering of food, incense and flowers at these shrines to placate these spirits.