When Swe Zin Htet takes the stage as the reigning Miss Myanmar in the Miss Universe competition on Sunday, she will be thinking of the LGBTQ community back in her country, also known as Burma, where homosexuality remains a crime.
Days ago, Htet came out as a lesbian and became the first openly gay Miss Universe pageant contestant. It’s a revelation the 21-year-old tells PEOPLE she timed to coincide with stepping into spotlight of the international pageant.
“I have that platform that, if I say that I’m a lesbian, it will have a big impact on the LGBTQ community back in Burma,” she says through a translator from Atlanta, where Miss Universe will be held Sunday at Tyler Perry Studios following a preliminary competition this week to determine the 20 semi-finalists.
“The difficult thing is that in Burma, LGBTQ people are not accepted,” Htet says, “they are looked down on by other people and are being discriminated against.”
Nicknamed “Superman” by her fans, Htet hopes to help change anti-LGBTQ attitudes both through her very public coming out and future advocacy, made stronger with her Miss Universe fame.
“It’s like I just started a new chapter in life,” she says.
Htet, who is also a singer and actress, first came out publicly on the beauty blog Missology on Nov. 29.
Htet remembers first feeling same sex-attraction when she was growing up, around 15 or 16. Being okay with it, even to herself, was “kind of difficult,” she says, “but after a period of time I felt I was a lesbian and kind of accepted it.”
It was this self-acceptance that led Htet to open up to her parents about five years ago. “At first, they were mad. They didn’t accept me,” she recalls. “But later, when they found out more about the LGBTQ community, they started to accept me.”
While those close to Htet knew she loved women — and she has been in a three-year relationship with the famous Burmese singer Gae Gae, whom she met at a party — she says she otherwise kept it a secret.
“Not a lot of people know about it,” she tells PEOPLE.
She’s changing that. While there is no mention of LGBTQ rights on her bio on the Miss Universe website — and she chose the issue of preventing child abuse as the cause for which she advocates — she posted a gay pride flag on her Instagram on Nov. 29, the same day she came out.
In the short time she’s been out, Htet has been getting support for her sexual orientation: from fellow Miss Universe contestants, pageant organizers, the LGTBQ community in Burma and “also all over the world,” she says. “And I’m very happy about that.”
“We are honored to give a platform to strong, inspirational women like Miss Universe Myanmar, who are brave enough to share their unique stories with the world,” Paula Shugart, president of The Miss Universe Organization, tells PEOPLE in an email. “Miss Universe will always champion women to be proud of who they are.”
There is no legal same-sex marriage in Myanmar and, according to a Myanmar Times review of LGBTQ rights in 2019, someone engaging in same-sex relations “carries sentences ranging from 10 years to life.”
“Despite the fact the law is not used in practice,” according to the publication, “its existence casts a long shadow over LGBT people across Myanmar.”
Still, there has been more freedom of expression for LGBTQ people in recent years, with public events, parties and advocacy “making some headway against the ‘old ways,’ ” the Myanmar Times reported.
It is this growing support Htet feels at home that gave her the courage to speak publicly last week: that all should have the freedom to follow their hearts.
“Love is the basic thing,” she says, adding: “It’s more about loving each another person, no matter who that person is. It’s coming from the heart.”