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FOCUS September 2018 Volume 93

The Rainbow Recast: Queering Non-profits on the Thai-Myanmar Border

Becky Zelikson

In recent years, grassroots non-profit organizations have been receiving requests from international donors to include LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) persons as both staff members and participants in their projects. Karen grassroots non-profit organizations along the Thai-Myanmar border, which document human rights violations within Myanmar, have received such requests. In this context, are the attitudes toward homosexuality and gender non-conformity among Karen1 non-profit organization staff members appropriate? I assess the relationship of these attitudes to the sense of safety, acceptance, and inclusion experienced by Karen sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (SOGIE) minorities within these organizations. I also propose ways to improve SOGIE minority inclusion within the non-profit sector on the Thai-Myanmar border and elsewhere.

Zelikson Pic2 Mae Sot and Border Map.jpg

Fieldwork for this study was done in Mae Sot, Thailand, over eleven months during the 2015-2016 period. During this time, I worked for one of the Karen non-profit organizations there, which advocates on behalf of Karen people in rural Myanmar, and provides them with human rights training. In my time with this organization, I observed the behavior of staff members, especially mentions of each other’s gender and/or sexuality. At this organization, I also facilitated a participatory workshop on the topic of gender and sexuality, during which participants wrote down their thoughts. In addition to these observation and workshop notes, I base my findings on nine in-depth interviews with Karen staff members from four different non-profit organizations along the Thai-Myanmar border. Of the nine participants, six were SOGIE majority (heterosexual, gender-conforming), whereas three were SOGIE minorities (LGBT or gender non-conforming). I analyzed these interviews to compare whether or not SOGIE majority and SOGIE minority participants were on the same page when it came to the current and ideal levels of LGBT inclusion in Karen non-profit organizations. 

Willingness to Include LGBT Issues
Interviews and observations of non-profit organization staff members revealed significant factors affecting staff members’ attitudes toward LGBT issues. 

Most non-profit organization staff members subscribed to the international human rights framework, including LGBT rights. However, they relegated “LGBT issues” to the bottom of their priority list; prioritizing the plethora of other human rights issues in the border regions of Myanmar. 

Given their own organizations’ commitment to human rights, non-LGBT staff members took workplace inclusivity for granted. Non-LGBT staff members expressed the wish to be inclusive of LGBT but lacked expertise to know what policies would benefit LGBT persons. In the absence of any complaints or suggestions from the LGBT staff members, the other staff members felt there was not much to do. Most staff members assumed that the current anti-harassment policies were sufficient. The experiences of LGBT staff members and others presumed to be LGBT in these organizations, however, contradicted this assumption. 

Embodying Queerness: Three Case Studies
Eh Say is a young man who identifies himself as gay. He had worked in a non-profit organization for a couple of years, where he was highly regarded and was not bullied for his sexuality. However, he overheard SOGIE-related comments that left him feeling indirectly judged, and uneasy about his colleagues’ attitudes toward LGBT.2 He wanted to challenge the perpetrators but had little success doing so. His status as a new employee discouraged him from speaking out: “He used that word, Achouk [derogatory term for ‘gay’]... And that was quite disturbing to me, but I was new… and I didn’t want to have any clash [with him], so I didn’t say anything.”

Eh Say explains that he was unable to intervene because standing up to colleagues requires a superior position within the organization or else he will be seen as insolent. Because of this hierarchy, Eh Say thinks, “That is why I have to work really hard to become an ideal person, so that I can gain certain respect, so that I can say, ‘this is wrong.’”

Despite the problematic comments, Eh Say shared his sexual orientation with a few colleagues - mainly women. These women accept him as gay, but some suggest that if he ever wanted to change, he could pray to rid himself of homosexuality. Eh Say is frustrated by this sentiment, but he knows that these women love him and only say these things due to their Christian views.

Naw Ghay, a woman working for another non-profit organization along the border, says that she is likely bisexual. Naw Ghay has not felt a need to disclose her sexual orientation to colleagues but thinks some suspect her to be so. Despite saying that she never felt uncomfortable at work, she describes being teased by her colleagues, who jokingly asked whether her future partner was going to be a boy or a girl. She finds this insulting and unnecessary; although she thinks that the comments have no malicious intent. “I know that I have a right to be like this, to be crazy [laughs] or whatever I want to do,“ says Naw Ghay, and emphasizes the need to raise awareness in the Karen community about LGBT rights.

Sah Wah is a male staff member of a non-profit organization. His mannerisms are somewhat feminine, but he identifies himself as heterosexual and a man. Nevertheless, Sah Wah experiences persistent teasing about his sexuality from co-workers who insist he is gay. Sah Wah’s responses vary, “Sometimes it’s okay because we’re close, and other times I feel angry. Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to be working with them. Sometimes I show them I’m angry, and I tell them, ‘Don’t say that, I don’t like it.’” His coworkers made him question his sexuality, but he concludes that he knows himself best, saying, “How can you tell me I will have a husband? You don’t know me; you just see my behavior.” Sah Wah’s experience is noteworthy for illustrating the need for organizations and staff to go beyond being inclusive and avoiding teasing LGBT people. They must also acknowledge and challenge the staff members’ behaviors that oppress individual gender expression.

Zelikson Pic1 Natural Man.jpg

Beyond Protecting LGBT Employees
In the Karen non-profit organization where I conducted my research, I observed ongoing jokes and teasing of several staff members’ gendered behaviors. Teasing was especially common when staff members presumed the persons they were teasing were not LGBT but acting in a way that deviates from their assigned gender.3 This was especially common among male staff members, who repeatedly teased other male staff members who act even slightly feminine. Some female staff members participated in this teasing, as well. One staff member became a target of these jokes because of his quiet and shy personality and his gentle mannerisms; while another staff became a target because of his interest in advocating for LGBT rights. 

The staff members frame SOGIE-related name-calling as a form of joking that is acceptable and common within the Karen community, and they downplay the impact that the language of this sort can have on its targets. Meanwhile, those on the receiving end often say that these jokes make them feel angry and hurt. Masculine culture among Karen men dictates that the deviating party, not the perpetrator of gender-based name-calling, is in the wrong. As a result, men who experience SOGIE-based teasing sometimes suppress feminine qualities for which they have been teased. As one of the SOGIE majority male staff members, Saw Myint, put it, “We can't do anything but we try to act like a man, in a manly manner, so we just try to avoid [being called] that kind of a word [‘gay’].” 

Saw Myint’s attempt to change his mannerisms is an example of how teasing regarding people’s gender expression serves to preserve society’s rigid traditional expectations of gender. These oppressive comments push men to act only masculine and women to act only feminine. Such narrow ideas of acceptable gender expression are restricting not only people who identify as LGBT, but all people: it makes it harder for women to express traditionally masculine traits like assertiveness and strong opinions, and it makes it harder for men to express gentleness and empathy, for instance. Workplaces, and especially human rights organizations, could benefit from an office culture where staff of all genders are free to express and connect with the full spectrum of human emotions and traits, without the threat of teasing or mocking.

The persistence of SOGIE-based teasing within Karen-led non-profit organization staff members stem from their interpretation of the obligation to protect “LGBT rights.” To protect “legitimate” gays and lesbians, i.e., those who look the part and/or are “out”, staff members try not to discriminate against LGBT candidates when hiring or delegating work, and ensure that no LGBT staff member is maliciously bullied. Because both LGBT and non-LGBT staff members subscribe to this narrow definition of LGBT rights, they dismiss the insidious and unintentional ways in which staff members “police” each other’s gender expression.

These findings suggest that those working to promote gender and sexual equity within non-profit organizations, development projects, and other workplaces should adopt strategies that address broader behaviors that restrict gender expression, whether or not the behaviors are targeting marginalized groups.

Towards Anti-oppressive Non-profits
Based on the results of this limited study, non-profit organizations and their staff members would be able to better promote LGBT rights through the following proposed actions:

  1. Human rights defenders and international development actors must acknowledge that “LGBT” labels and rights-based activism are not universally understood and do not encompass all experiences of SOGIE-based oppression. In the non-profit organizations I studied, teasing and discriminatory behavior in the workplace is taken to constitute LGBT discrimination only if (a) there is malicious intent and (b) if the teased party identifies themselves as LGBT. Workers who are teased, but are not gay, lesbian, and/or transgender, see no avenue for recourse. On the other hand, even LGBT individuals who experience teasing are reluctant to interpret their experiences as “discrimination” because they assume that the behavior is not malicious and they want to speak positively about their employers and colleagues. One way to overcome this reluctance to report uncomfortable experiences is to ask employees the right questions. For example, asking, “Have you ever felt uncomfortable or mistreated at work?” elicits a negative response; but the same staff members would speak at length when asked which comments they do not like, or what they wish colleagues would not ask them or joke about. Non-profit organizations striving to promote SOGIE equality must therefore expand their focus beyond identity politics by challenging the underlying suppression of gender expression and sexuality at all levels of their work, including within their own offices;
  2. Non-profit organizations wishing to become more inclusive and affirming workplaces must go beyond writing policies and encourage dialogue about gender expression and the ways its suppression occurs in the office. Through compassionate discussion, non-profit staff members will slowly modify behaviors that make their colleagues uncomfortable; 
  3. Such organizations should also adopt an anonymous reporting mechanism to expose uncomfortable incidents; not to punish or criticize, but to collaboratively discuss how such behavior should be changed;
  4. Further research and advocacy is needed to increase the visibility of Karen SOGIE minorities. In particular, further research should document livelihood and educational challenges experienced by SOGIE minority Karen not employed by non-profit organizations. Similar research from other ethno-cultural and national groups is also needed.

Rivka (Becky) Zelikson holds an Honors B.A in International Development Studies from the University of Toronto.
For further information, please contact: Rivka (Becky) Zelikson, e-mail: beckyzelikson[a]gmail.com.

1 The Karen are a culturally and linguistically diverse ethnic group living primarily in Thailand and Myanmar. See  http://ethnomed.org/culture/karen/karen-cultural-profile.
2 Comments that make marginalized individuals feel excluded and indirectly judged can be described as microaggressions. A microaggression is an indirect or unintentional discrimination towards a member of a minority group. An example of a verbal microaggression is saying ’That’s so gay’ to convey that something is bad or strange. This indirectly implies that gay people are also bad and strange.
3 Where a person’s sexuality is not explicit, normative heterosexuality is enforced through microaggressive acts of gender policing. For a discussion on gender policing see Elizabethe Payne and Melissa J. Smith, "Gender policing," in Critical Concepts in Queer Studies and Education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pages 127-136.

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