Note from the editor:
I first came across Emi Grate through a Facebook group for Burmese Queer Straight Alliances where I saw a photo of her in drag. She was dressed in a red yin phone with a gold shawl draped over her shoulders: she looked stunning, to say the least. Being a fan of RuPaul’s drag race and a member of the queer community, I immediately went to her page and saw she was indeed from Myanmar, specifically Mandalay. There was a sense of pride and joy that came over me knowing that here was a Burmese drag queen performing and living in New York City. After sending messages back and forth, Emi agreed to do an interview with us.
Addressing the serious lack of representation, recognition, and acceptance of the LGBTQ community in Myanmar as well as in the diaspora, we at the magazine feel it is important to give space to narratives that are different from our own. It is important to move forward as a country and as a people to accept all its citizens regardless of sexual orientation, gender, disability, race, creed, or religion.
I would like to personally thank Emi Grate for graciously sharing her story and her thoughts with us. We are so privileged to have this opportunity.
Thank you from us at Yangon Literary Magazine Team
Khin Chan Myae Maung
Q: Since Out in the Open is focusing on the stories of Burmese diaspora and exploring what it means to be Burmese apart from the conservative narrative. The first most logical question has to be, who are you? Tell us a little about yourself and your art form.
A: My name is Emi Grate. I am originally from Mandalay, Burma. I hold an undergraduate liberal arts degree in theater from Hanover College (Hanover, Indiana). I am a drag queen living and working in New York City in the United States. Being a drag queen is essentially female impersonation. Anyone of any gender or age can do it, and it manifests in different ways. It’s a theatrical/performance art form; many people impersonate celebrities, and many others create female/feminine characters of their own, and I am of the latter category. I have crafted an image for myself, from makeup, hair, outfits to the way I talk and behave online and in person. I chose the name “Emi Grate” (emigrate) because migration – or move and change in search of new and better things – has been a constant in my life, and consequently my acts often involve the ramifications a queer/LGBT migrant.
Q: Being part of the Burmese diaspora as well as the LGBTQ community, you are at an intersection that a lot of Burmese people don’t readily validate. How do these two identities affect you as a person and as an artist? Do you think you are redefining what it means to be Burmese both abroad and back in Myanmar? And how so.
A: Oof, they make my life very hard, to say the least. The last time I was in Burma was August of 2012 – my first summer vacation from college – and I haven’t been back since, solely because I can’t stand the social ostracism that comes from being queer. Friends and family will not confront you, but the tension and the prejudice is there and you can feel it. I used to be the popular kid in high school, and very few would talk to me after I came out.
Here in the US – at least in the places that I’ve resided – being a person of colour has been harder than being gay. (I was male-assigned at birth, and although I identify as a gender-queer pansexual, I can pass as a gay male.) However, that is not to say being both queer and coloured has been easy. Back in college, the gay-straight alliance wouldn’t have resources to help LGBT students whose first language isn’t English and are from a different culture. With the Burmese immigrant communities, I don’t necessarily find a sense of belonging, because I don’t fit their image of a proper college-educated young Burmese male. Even in arts, entertainment and literature, it’s not quite easy to connect with the LGBT community in the US because the things I gravitated towards aesthetically growing up are drastically different from those of other queers. For example, I read U Ba Kyi’s comics on Buddhist scriptures as a kid, while the Americans had superhero comics; I grew up watching Dway and Htet Htet Moe Oo, and it was Ryan Gosling and Hillary Duff for the Americans.
I think I’ve dealt with the complications that arise from the intersection by exploring each identity in depth and trying to merge what I find to be the best of both. In drag, when I style myself, I accessorize the way a high-class Burmese woman would: I like to wear hair up and put flowers in; I wear heavy jewelry; I wear perfume that smell like precious woods and flowers; I refuse to shave my arms; and so on. Anything I can do to say, “I am beautiful in a classic Burmese way, and I don’t need your validation” and mean it from the heart, I do it – and people usually don’t disagree. For my acts, I like to perform really well-known songs the narratives of which, if superimposed on the circumstances of my existence, would completely change to tell a new story – a story of my own. But I always have to provide some context; I very often perform for complete strangers.
I’m not actually sure how I’m reaching Burmese folks at home – if at all. My parents are fully aware of my work. They used to be skeptical of it, but are in awe of what I’ve accomplished by myself as a queer migrant; but sadly, of course, they can’t openly take pride in it in Burmese society. I have few friends from high school who have religiously followed my work. Some of them are straight, and some are queer. They must find the confident self-proclamation and self-actualization of femininity/womanhood thought-provoking and aesthetically pleasing – even if it’s just an act. And I’m sure the intersection with a Burmese identity makes it all even more intriguing.
Q: Talking more about your drag, from what you’ve said you draw greatly upon your identity. That sounds like a complex relationship between embracing the Burmese side of yourself while knowing that if you were ever to come back it would not be easy. A lot of LGBTQ youths who are studying aboard have a similar conflict of where there is a love for their home country and yet a disdain because of its attitudes. How did you reconcile complex relationship? Have you reconciled with that? Do you have any advice for Burmese youths abroad and in the country who might be going through similar struggles?
How did you reconcile complex relationship? Have you reconciled with that? Do you have any advice for Burmese youths abroad and in the country who might be going through similar struggles?
A: It really is an existential dilemma. When I was last in Burma for very first my college vacation in 2012, I’d just come out, and I ended up spending almost its entirety in isolation: I stopped seeing friends or relatives, I locked myself in my room because the homophobia/transphobia was overwhelming. And when I left, I decided not return until I’ve made something of myself and be able to call the shots in my own life – to claim, “I’m queer AND I’m an accomplished professional and an independent adult. I demand respect!” It’s a work in progress. I’m aware Burmese people are becoming more aware of an open to LGBT identities, but I don’t see myself going back in the foreseeable future yet.
In terms of reconciling with the negative aspects of Burmese culture – xenophobia in general, which extends beyond sexual and gender identities in Burmese society – everybody has to deal with the consequences, directly or indirectly. The oppressed and the marginalized are visibly on the losing end, but the society as a whole loses too for not embracing diversity. If you keep LGBT people out of work or refuse to provide health care for them, it’s a loss for the workforce. As for advice, I’ll just say: be visible! Be yourself. Remind people you’re here, that you’ve always been around – that you are part of Burmese society. Let them know actively and passively that your presence is not detrimental to Burmese society, that you actually have things to contribute, that them acknowledging you makes their lives and your lives so much easier.
One thing I do with my drag to affirm the intersection of being Burmese and being queer is, I try to show each of those identities how much I am also of the other –and how they are actually complimentary. I very often revisit music, art, and literature from my childhood in Burma, and analyze them from a queer perspective or talk about how they inform my queer identity. Really dramatic pop songs by May Sweet or Nwet Yin Win are good examples; they covered a lot of Western artists who happen to be gay icons, like ABBA and Barbra Streisand. Sometimes it happens on stage, sometimes on social media and sometimes in private conversations, but make sure I actively do it.
Q: You have given us so much good insight, we have essentially run out of questions. Do you have any last words you would like to share with our readers?
A: Well, currently I’m working on establishing myself as a respected drag artist in the United States. I like to think I’m doing a decent job in New York. I would like to reach a wider audience – beyond the United States, beyond just the LGBT community, and ultimately Burma. I am #emigrateful Yangon Literary Magazine reached out to me for an interview, because that’s a very good first step. For the readers, please feel free to follow me on social media, and do not hesitate to reach out to me to discuss queer politics: whether it’s about expressing queerness on a daily basis, through art or in political discourse. I am quite accessible and approachable. I am not an expert in social work or politics by any means, but I can share what I know and direct you to other resources as necessary. Thank you!
– Facebook > facebook.com/emigrate.drag
– Instagram > @emigrate_drag
– Twitter > @emigrate_drag
– YouTube > Emi Grate