By Rob Bryan
Tin Soe was just four when he realised he was different to other boys in his neighbourhood, but growing up in conservative and army-ruled Myanmar, he struggled to be accepted as gay by his relatives.
"My granddad's sister said that if I became a monk my sexuality would change. So I was a monk for three months, but my sexuality never changed," the 30-year-old said, asking for his real name to be withheld.
A repressive mix of totalitarian politics, religious views and reserved social mores has kept many gay people in the closet in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
Gay men have developed their own language as a "gaylingual" code to both signify and conceal their sexuality, said Tin Soe, who now works on HIV/AIDs prevention in Yangon.
"We want to be secret and we don't want to let other people know what we are saying. We twist the pronunciation."It's a world away from neighbouring Thailand, where a lively gay and transsexual scene is a largely accepted part of society, which - like Myanmar - is mainly Buddhist.
"More Burmese are travelling to Thailand and see things there," said a 34-year-old working in Myanmar's tourism industry. "But here gays are still looked down on, in a certain category."Homosexuality is often linked to local religious beliefs about karma in Myanmar, Tin Soe said.
Many believe "we're gay because we did something in a past life, that in a past life I committed adultery or raped a woman. But I don't believe in that," he explained.
"It's not like Iran where they are killed, but gays are a strange story in this country."Traditionally, the only area where non-heterosexuality has been openly embraced is the realm of "nat" or spirit worship, a form of animism that is intertwined with Myanmar's Buddhist beliefs.
Flamboyant and effeminate spirit mediums take centre stage at popular "nat" festivals throughout the year, but their acceptance here has also served to reinforce certain stereotypes of gay people in Myanmar.
Same-sex relations are technically criminalised by a colonial penal code, and while this is no longer strictly enforced, activists say it is still used by authorities to discriminate and extort.
"They use it as an excuse to make money and harass people but they don't bring the cases to court," said Aung Myo Min, an openly gay Myanmar exile and director of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, based in Thailand.
He said there were numerous instances of sexual violence and humiliation of gay people in public.
"Many cases are not reported because the victims keep silent out of shame and fear of repercussions."In a country under army control for nearly five decades, broaching any kind of anti-discrimination or human rights issue is hugely sensitive.
"The man who starts to ask for rights in the gay community will be sent to prison," said another Yangon-based HIV/AIDS activist in his fifties.
The Internet offers a forum for gay men to meet, deemed safer than public cruising: Tin Soe met his boyfriend on Facebook, for example, but he said many were afraid to put their photos on gay websites.
In light of such discretion, raising public health awareness isn't easy.
In some areas, such as the big cities of Yangon and Mandalay, as many as 29 percent of men having sex with men are HIV positive, according to a 2010 report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.
"We have a lot of activists in this country but we can't campaign very openly. We will have a workshop in a hotel but without big posters and loudspeakers. We do it low profile," said Tin Soe.While lesbianism is also largely hidden in Myanmar, Aung Myo Min said it was more acceptable to the militarised and macho culture, in which many fail to differentiate between homosexual and transgender people.
"The woman who wants to be a man is excusable," he said.A 52-year-old in Yangon said things had improved since his teenage years, when "people would use sling shots against us," but he warned there was still a long road ahead to a truly tolerant Myanmar.
"We want to be like Thailand, where gay people have equal chances," he said.