In the dusty township of Amarapura, near Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady River, Linn Linn, a trans woman, takes on the role of a nat kadaw, or spirit medium, in a private nat pwè ceremony. With her wavy hair tied up, she dances to nat music, entering a trance-like state, offering blessings to her followers.
In Myanmar, nat kadaws traditionally were women, passing down the role from mother to daughter. However, since the 1980s, the profession has seen an influx of meinmashas, gender-fluid individuals, many assigned male at birth who identify as women. This change has led to a Western misconception conflating nat kadaws with gay individuals.
Myanmar’s conservative Buddhist society stigmatizes homosexuality, viewing it as karmic punishment. Though rarely enforced, a colonial-era law still deems it illegal. Despite this, nat kadaws play a vital role in bridging the gap between the human world and the supernatural, offering guidance and receiving respect during nat pwè ceremonies.
For meinmashas, becoming nat kadaws is an avenue for freedom, acceptance, and dignity, providing a respite from societal discrimination. While nat pwè offers a liberating atmosphere, discrimination persists in everyday life. Linn Linn’s journey, like that of many trans women in Myanmar, reflects the resilience and spiritual calling that drives them to embrace their identity as nat kadaws.
As the LGBTQ+ community finds sanctuary in nat pwès and nat shrines, cisgender women nat kadaws have seen their roles diminish. Times have changed, with Meinmashas now often perceived as more capable of pleasing the spirits. However, this shift also underscores the ongoing discrimination faced by cisgender women nat kadaws.
In Myanmar, where there’s no official count of the LGBTQ+ population, the nat kadaw profession offers a unique employment opportunity for trans women, allowing them to embrace their identity while providing a vital spiritual service. These nat pwès, marked by the suspension of societal norms, become sanctuaries of acceptance and celebration of identity for Myanmar’s trans community.