- Transgender, Transgression, and Translation: A Cartography of Nat KadawsNotes on Gender and Sexuality within the Spirit Cult of Burma
Burmese spirit worship offers a particularly complex case of translating transgression and transgendered identities.1 The Burmese nat kadaw,2 or spirit medium is, on the one hand, provocatively represented and constructed in variegated globalized representations highlighting the exotically queer and, on the other hand, often miscategorized and unevenly transposed into Western frames of language and epistemology.
The challenge of speaking across cultures and languages is demonstrated in Gary Morris's review of the 2002 San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival:
Nats are spirits, channeled by Burmese queens, that can help with finances, love, etc., and 85% of the population believes in them. The queens who channel them (and it's mostly a "gay thing") are highly respected and feared by all, including Burma's brutal military. "Did you fuck the general?" one of them asks another. It seems some of the nats have "government sponsors" who give them presents, houses, and perhaps nights of hot military lovin'. Some of the spirits have names suspiciously similar to drag queens: Lady Silver Wings, Little Flute Lady.3 [End Page 273]
This summary of Lindsey Merrison's critically acclaimed documentary Friends in High Places: The Art of Survival in Modern-Day Burma (2001) conflates the U.S. figure of the "gay" drag queen and the Burmese nat kadaw, illustrating the discursive incorporation of nat kadaws into globalized discourses of queer/LGBT sexuality, agency, and transgression.4 The slippage between nat kadaw and "Burmese queen" confirms their transnational resonances as historically inspirational figures of queer defiance against institutionalized state violence and heteropatriarchy (e.g., nat kadaws standing up to Myanmar military could be likened to the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City).5 Morris's film review also highlights how the variegated vocabulary surrounding nat mediums, gender (roles), and sexuality in Burma is too often lost in translation: not all Burmese nat kadaws are male, nor are the male-bodied nat kadaws all necessarily "gay" or drag "queens" in the Western sense.6
The Burmese nat kadaw functions as a professional ritualist, shaman, and entertainer, translating between the realms of the supernatural and human, usually for a fee. The term nat kadaw, literally "lord-consort," often translated as "spirit spouse" or "spirit wife," refers to people who are possessed or "loved by" one or more supernatural beings called nat, a flexible term with connotations of suzerainty.7 Signifying regional and local animistic beliefs predating Buddhist Burma, nat encompasses a broad range of capricious spirits considered "more powerful than man. [They] can affect him either for good or for evil."8 Historic and mythological figures who become nats are said to have died unjustly, often killed, either by royalty (making them "inside" nats) or other figures of authority (making them "outside" nats); thus, their animating butterfly spirits (leikpyas)9 are disembodied and uneasy because of the violent circumstances of death.10 Burmese women have been the predominant practitioners in a wide range of rituals related to propitiating nats.11 Historically, the role was hereditary (mothers passed the vocation to daughters), and the majority of nat kadaws were women, some married to men who are stereotyped in late-twentieth-century academic scholarship and Burmese popular discourse as "socially weak and sexually inadequate."12 In the mid-twentieth century, few nat kadaws were male: 3–4 percent according to one local estimate in the early 1960s; many of these were described as unmarried bachelors or divorced men who were effeminate or "latent homosexuals."13 Since the 1980s, an increasing number of nat kadaws are transgendered gay men, a trend projected on the global screen through academic scholarship, documentary film, Burmese cultural works in translation, and travel blogs. [End Page 274]
Morris's film review reveals the perils of globalizing, assimilationist translation. Situating nat worship as a "gay thing" or radically and exotically queer without attention to historical, cultural, and linguistic specificities risks reifying a globalized, presentist "queer" homogeneity, a normalizing, ahistorical, and often masculinist epistemology14 that threatens to overshadow other sexual minority subject positions and inhibits human rights...