When martial artist Khin Cham Myae Thu began teaching free self-defence classes four years ago, she had no idea how important the weekend gatherings would become to members of Yangon’s LGBTQ community. She had been arming her neighbours with the skills they needed to defend themselves during summer classes but when she saw the number of LGBTQ students increase almost every week this year, she kept the free lessons going during the monsoon too.
Mocked and sometimes even attacked, queer people want attitudes to change in Myanmar — a former British colony that has a strong conservative strain and, unlike its neighbour India, is yet to abolish its anti-sodomy law.
It can take decades for a society to shed itself of prejudice, meanwhile, learning an armbar is doable in a couple of lessons under Khin Cham, 36, whose alias Gloria Judo feels more fitting of her bully-hunter aura.
“The LGBTQ people need this more to protect themselves,” Gloria told VICE. Male instructors can be intimidating for some students, she said, so her maternal approach helps people “stand up for themselves and their family.”
As the sun set one Saturday in December, trainees trickled in and placed four thin mats in her small space, which doubles up as a fitness and health consultancy called Body Art. The walls were plastered with cartoons and photographs of Gloria, a judo black belt and referee.
The sensei had just woken from a nap after returning from the 2019 Southeast Asia Games in the Philippines, where she served as an international technical official.
With her judo gi at the laundrette, she wrapped her black belt around her jeans, as psychology student Kai, 18, crunched his fist to feign a strike at her.
Kai’s mother knows he studies martial arts, but she doesn’t know he’s gay. He’s been going to the lessons for a year and a half after six classmates called him “weakling,” beat him, and stole his money.
“I wasn’t hit hard but it was done in a humiliating way,” he described, saying he “stood still and took the abuse.”
Little sympathy comes from the traditional core of the predominately Buddhist public, who believe being gay is karmic punishment for sins committed in a previous incarnation.
Section 377 of the colonial-era Penal Code goes one step further and threatens queer people with 10 years’ imprisonment, which, although rarely enforced, gives an excuse for authorities to harass the LGBTQ community.
Progress was also seen in Yangon this year with PRIDE events, though stark examples of discrimination sobered the mood, as with the case of Kyaw Zin Win, a gay librarian who took his own life in June after his colleagues subjected him to homophobic bullying. Two months later, Myanmar’s human rights commission concluded he was “mentally weak.”
“It’s like he didn’t have anyone to rely on, and it was him against the world,” reflected Kai, an only child whose father passed away when he was younger.
Back on the mats, Kai’s fist is grabbed by Gloria, who cupped his neck with her other hand and shifted her hips in front of him, tossing him to the ground. They bowed to each other and everyone clapped.
“There’s no such thing as a light throw in judo because that’s more dangerous than a hard one,” explained Gloria. “You need momentum to throw otherwise you’ll seriously hurt yourself.”
Born in the Ayeyarwady delta town of Myaungmya, Gloria began judo at age 9 and went on to compete for the national team.
The teacher provides water, snacks, and “sometimes medical attention when things go south,” she said, recalling a student who dislocated his shoulder while practising a technique. “I popped it back in right away.”
But for Kai, the benefits massively outweigh the risks — his anxiety has gone, he said, and socialising comes easier now. Six months into the class, he even put his new skills to the test when two men harassed his female cousin. This time, he fought back and they walked away.
“I have the courage to go out anytime and anywhere now,” Kai said. “Not only can I protect myself now, I can protect my whole family. That makes me really proud.”