Yone Lay is a transgender woman and peer educator who provides health education and referrals at a drop-in center in Yangon, Myanmar. She works with Population Services International (PSI)’s Targeted Outreach Program (TOP) that aims to meet the needs of key populations that are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, including men who have sex with men, transgender people and female sex workers. PSI is a project partner of the USAID HIV/AIDS Flagship (UHF) project managed by UNAIDS through Community Partners International (CPI). Here Yone Lay discusses her responsibilities as a peer educator, her hopes for the transgender community in Myanmar, and the changes she would like to help realize in the future.
Yone Lay joined TOP six years ago after working in community organizations in Yangon. The program currently operates 12 centers in Myanmar serving key populations. “I don’t see TOP as a job, but more as a family,” says Yone Lay. “I’ve worked here for a long time because I am very emotionally attached to this place and people.”
Why did you start working as a peer educator?
I met people who work at TOP. I saw that the community was warm and close-knit, and I took an interest in the center. I am very passionate about helping people like me by providing health education. Most people usually discriminate against you if you are a transgender person. As a transgender person, I wanted to show people that I am more than capable of helping my country and community as a health worker.
Tell us about your responsibilities.
We give information about HIV and encourage individuals to get tested at TOP centers. We also spread the word about TOP centers. It’s not exclusively for men who have sex with men or transgender people like me; we provide information to everyone.
What is the atmosphere like at TOP?
TOP is like a warm family. If I were to work at an ordinary [heteronormative] organization, it would be very difficult for me as a transgender person. There would definitely be discrimination. However, here at TOP, there are a lot of like-minded and open-minded people. Since there are also transgender friends like me, I can also talk about my love life and other matters openly. Others might never understand me, but people here understand me.
I might be in a more financially comfortable position working another office job or as a makeup artist, but it doesn’t matter to me since at TOP, I am providing educational information to people like me and helping the public. I’ll be happy and content if the public changes how they view me because of my work.
How has your perception about your community changed as a result of your involvement as a peer educator?
Previously, boys in my street would catcall and say things like “Love” or “A Thae Lay.” They might not have meant anything by it and they might have been teasing, but it is just as bad as harassment. After I started working at TOP, I talked to those boys who teased me, and even persuaded them to come to the center to get tested and receive educational information about safe sex. They even started to think highly of me since I am a member of TOP. They changed. Previously, they were catcalling me in the streets, but now, they have given me a place to be a transgender woman who is working for her community.
Since there are now many organizations like TOP, and because media outlets are educating people not to harass transgender people, people in Yangon have started giving an equal place for us in the community.
What are some projects you would like to implement in the future?
Since there are already many projects on HIV prevention, I would like to do projects for children, especially for those who are in middle school around the ages of 13 or 14. That’s when they usually start to take interest in sex-related matters. If they experiment out of curiosity without having proper sex education, there can be harmful consequences. If I were to continue working at TOP, I would like to focus on giving extensive sex education in state schools for teenage students.
What are your hopes for your community?
I have been in a documentary before and I talked about how we should not represent queer individuals as jokes or laughing stocks in media and films. What I want is for the public to have extensive knowledge about transgender people. I don’t want the public to discriminate against transgender people, especially at a young age. It’s not good at all if a transgender person were to have a traumatic childhood just for being him or herself. I had to try very hard to be in my current situation since there was a lot of discrimination and stigma. In the future, I want people to understand us and accept us as a part of society.
Concerning hormone treatments, I hope there will be more services and information out there so that less transgender people will walk on the wrong path. If you are a transgender person, you are more likely to be on your own as you grow up. So, there is a big possibility that you will get involved with the wrong crowd.
Concerning job opportunities, stereotypically, transgender women are [often limited to] either makeup artists or Nat Kadaw [Spirit’s Wife]. I want transgender people to be office staff members or anything in accordance with their educational backgrounds. I think that would probably grant us a place in society.
Would you like to add anything else?
As a transgender woman, I can share knowledge about hormone treatments. Usually, people do not know about prescribed amounts. There are risks as a result of not knowing how to take hormone replacement medications. I learned about it from older transgender people, but even they do not have extensive knowledge about it. It would nice if we can start projects that give information about hormone treatments and dosage.
This interview has been translated and edited. The views and opinions expressed within this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of PEPFAR, USAID, UNAIDS, Community Partners International, Population Services International or TOP Center Myanmar.
The UHF project is funded by USAID under PEPFAR through UNAIDS Myanmar. Community Partners International is providing project implementation support and management to partner organizations including Population Services International.