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Why Discrimination Matters

BY :: Sara Soe Myint
Feb 2015

In our blog for February, Sara explains how discrimination shapes your life. You can either succumb to it or fight it.

I never grew up knowing what the word “discrimination” meant till much later in life as a young adult. That’s because I presume I never needed too. After all, I was born cursed you see– that’s what I was always told by my parents and elder sister for as long as I can remember. I was born a boy but acted as a girl and that they said bought shame to family. The village where I grew up in Burma was just as ruthless for I was constantly spat at and taunted.

But that was not all. My father for example, always said I was to die from HIV. That’s what people get for being a “hijra (transgender),” he never forgot to remind me. He meant well I suppose because the village wasn’t unaware of HIV. There were already a few people affected by HIV in our village. One can’t keep such secrets – perceived or real – from a closely knit community.

I remember a couple having to undergo the worst possible form of ostracism because they were sick. It was cruel. All in the village were forbidden to see them. I did visit them quietly; always fearful I would be found out. When I was with them, I realized just how warm and wonderful they were. Whatever they eventually died of definitely also included ill-treatment. Even after death they were not spared, for villagers burnt all their clothes and broke and buried their utensils.

This had a great impact on my young and very impressionable mind. How can people be so cruel? If they were sick they needed help, not exclusion. It was so obvious to me but no one bothered to take care of them. It was a terrible situation to be in. Although I was still in school at that time, I made up my mind that as soon as I grew up, I would work to make sure that such a situation does not occur, ever.

Years later, what happened to me also reinforced what I wanted to do with my life. Just after finishing high school and before I could think of getting a job, I became very sick with typhoid. I had fever, much vomiting and diarrhea. It was off course presumed that I had HIV. I was a hijra after all wasn’t I? And so relatives and other people in the village avoided the family.

It was only with the help of other transgender people in the village that I went to Mandalay for treatment and became well and then began working with NGOs to dispel ignorance about HIV. In the course of switching jobs I reached Thailand to work with The HIV Foundation.   It was with the foundation that I was able to translate my experiences into action among the numerous vulnerable migrant workers from Myanmar. The foundation helped me realize that just educating people about HIV was not enough. Even just taking care of people sick with HIV is not enough. There is something more malignant that the disease itself. And that is coping with discrimination they face just for being who they are. Unfortunately, gay and transgender people, who already are on the fringes of society by being treated less than what they should be as human beings, happen to be disproportionately impacted by the HIV epidemic. This just makes a bad situation worse.

Discrimination does shape your life. You can either succumb to it or rise up and fight it with every ounce of strength and determination that God has given you. I never questioned the nature of my sex; I never had a problem accepting myself. It was also my nature to be a fighter. I was not going to let anyone rob me of my life, of what I wanted to be, of who I am. But that is easier said than done. There are times when it is so easy to just act like a doormat and let people walk all over you. I know many who have chosen this path of least resistance. Constant badgering, especially from those who are supposed to love you–your relatives and close family–yelling that we hijras are no good people just because we are different, can take its toll. I refuse to let it affect me. In fact, it helped me to prove that I am better than them by striving to rise above the din of prejudice and discrimination and to make a difference.

But I also understand that not all can be thus motivated. Not all have the same resilience or capacity or innate ability to withstand criticism, prejudice. Even though many countries have laws that deal with discrimination–discrimination cannot make a difference unless all in society make a concerted and conscious effort to treat people different from the vast majority of them with the respect they deserve. Until then, for many, discrimination is not something they will learn about. Discrimination is something they will just have to live with – unless you make the difference.

Sara Soe Myint (Contributor)
Sara works with Myanmar people living with HIV in Bangkok. She accompanies them to health services, helps to get health insurance or provides counselling and practical support to get them through the hard times. At times, Sara helps Myanmar people with HIV cross borders to get health care.