Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 47, Issue 4, pp 987–998 | Cite as

Gender Variance and Sexual Orientation Among Male Spirit Mediums in Myanmar

  • Eli Coleman
  • Mariette Pathy Allen
  • Jessie V. Ford
Original Paper


This article describes the gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation of male spirit mediums in Myanmar. Our analysis is based on ethnographic work, field observation, and 10 semi-structured interviews. These observations were conducted from 2010 to 2015, mostly in Mandalay, with some fieldwork in Yangon and Bagan. The focus of this investigation was specifically on achout (gender variant individuals) who were spirit mediums (nat kadaw). Semi-structured interviews explored the ways that participants understood their gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality in relation to their work as spirit mediums and broader social life. Myanmar remains quite a homophobic and transphobic culture but is undergoing rapid economic and social change. Therefore, it provides an interesting context to study how safe spaces are produced for sexual/gender minorities amidst broader social change. We find that, through the animistic belief structure, there is a growing space for gender nonconforming people, gender variant, and same-sex-oriented individuals (achout) to neutralize their stigmatized status and attain a level of respect and economic advantage. Their ability to become nat kadaw (mediums of spirits) mitigates or trumps their stigmatized status.


Gender variance Gender identity Gender expression Sexual orientation Myanmar 



This study was funded by Tawani Foundation (no grant number). Dr. Coleman would like to thank some of his original collaborators for his research in Burma–Louis Gooren and Philp Colgan. In addition, we would like to thank our translators in Burma–Aung Kyawmyint, Ko Tin Maung Cho (Chalu), Myint Oo, and Thet Paing Mhew (Smile) (Burma). We would like thank Swagata Banik for his careful review of the manuscript and Burmese Scholars David Gilbert and Dr. Nay Myo Naing (Shanlay) for their helpful input. We are grateful to our participants and subjects of this study who shared their intimate lives with us.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. This study protocol was reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board for the Protection of Human Subjects of the University of Minnesota in 2006. Confidentiality of the qualitative interviews and the field notes were maintained at all stages of data collection and analysis. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eli Coleman
    • 1
  • Mariette Pathy Allen
    • 2
  • Jessie V. Ford
    • 3
  1. 1.Program in Human Sexuality, Department of Family Medicine and Community HealthUniversity of Minnesota Medical SchoolMinneapolisUSA
  2. 2.MFANew YorkUSA
  3. 3.Department of SociologyNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA

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