Transvestites, Texans, and the Meaning of Freedom

Myanmar is a place to reflect on the nature of freedom. It’s all too easy to stroll the shady streets of Yangon chatting with smiling locals and willingly accept the illusion of happy, shiny people that the government is so keen to project. Eager to uncover hidden injustices masked by an oppressive regime – they are definitely widespread – I uncovered something far more surprising, a few small freedoms which seemed all the more noticeable in a land overwhelmingly associated with human rights abuses.

Seated in our overnight bus to Mandalay, I apprehensively awaited the moment the bus conductor would switch on the on-board TV. Western visitors to Asia almost universally condemn the nightmarishly inane “entertainment” that tortures us on the travelers trail. Boppy boy bands, giggling girl groups, sickeningly saccharin cartoon montages, Hello Kitty hell… “Oh God, he’s going to turn it on!!!” I thought.

And, suddenly, there it was… cartoon hearts floated across the screen as a high-pitched voice squealed about happiness and love. The girl on screen contorted her face into a freakish expression meant to convey bliss. To me, it looked more like a grotesque mask meant for a B-grade horror flick.

And then, the most unexpected thing happened – the bus conductor fast forwarded to a new set of videos. A man belted out a guttural song in Burmese which sounded like a bizarre mix of Tibetan throat singing and Ramstein. Next, a short-haired woman dressed in what looked like a stylized nun’s habit sang a throaty tune that sounded quite a bit like a punk version of Melissa Etheridge. Song after song challenged my preconceptions about Asia and revealed an unexpected edginess. This is a small country with little money, but the music seemed shockingly well produced. Are the Burmese expressing themselves, their frustrations and their dreams, through music? Since I don’t speak Burmese, I have no way of knowing.

But the musical stylings of Myanmar were only the beginning. The next DVD featured the Miss Red Ribbon Beauty Contest. Again, I lapsed into my cynical, Western condemnation of Asian cutesiness. A huge audience had gathered onscreen to watch the affair as beautiful ladies strutted by in preparation for the show. I was wondering how to say “world peace” in Burmese when I suddenly noticed that one of the women had … an Adam’s apple! All the contestant were men.

For three hours, the bus passengers were glued to the transvestite beauty pageant eager to see who would be crowned Miss Red Ribbon. Evening gowns, swim suits, songs and speeches, everyone was glued to their seats waiting for the winner to be announced. Nobody mocked the show, no giggles, no frowns – just silent appreciation for an army of glamorous cross-dressers pursuing an honest dream, the title of Miss Red Ribbon. A group of Buddhist monks seated in front of me stared at the screen waiting for the winner to be announced. An eighty year old couple behind us strained their eyes as the winner was revealed. Screams, squeals, and the stick-thin, Kate-Moss-esque winner was announced. (Apparently, heroin chic is still all the rage in the Golden Triangle!)

As the new Miss Red Ribbon struggled forward onstage, she was handed a bouquet of roses and crowned with a gaudy tiara. She struggled to move forward and dramatically fought to keep from fainting as she was pushed towards her over-sized reward check. I glanced around at the bus passengers curious to see their reaction. Nothing but appreciative smiles for the new tranny beauty queen.

The irony.

Somewhere, in a small town in Texas, there is a fearful cross-dresser who dreams of a land where she can be Miss Red Ribbon. The desirous diva would probably give anything to live in a dictatorship where her artistry would be greeted with smiling faces rather than a mob hungry for a lynching.

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