Cambodia’s LGBTIQ Community Adrift in the Divide

Cambodia’s LGBTIQ

By Sheila Yuan Jiahuan / United Nations in Cambodia

Ouk Chan Dara was sitting in a café in Phnom Penh, wearing navy-blue eyeshadow and bright red lipstick. Many walking by would cast a curious stare.

“I’ve gotten used to it,” Ouk explained, “I used to be insulted and sometimes harassed when walking on the street.”

For nearly 40 years, Ouk has been living a profoundly complicated life as a woman, an identity that has brought countless challenges to her.
Ouk Chan Dara was in a LGBTIQ event in Phnom Penh

“When I was six years old, I felt I was different from other boys in the village,” Ouk recalls, “I loved dressing in skirts, having long hair and playing with plush toys.”

In 1979, Ouk came out as a transgender woman. At the time the LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer) community was still relatively invisible in Cambodia. Sexual orientation and gender identity had long been regarded as sensitive subjects. And LGBTIQ practices were usually viewed as being against traditional culture and contradicting the social order of the state.

“My mother insulted and hit me a lot, and said I was not her child. She told me to stay away from home,” said Ouk.

At only 17, Ouk was made to leave home. As an unskilled teenager, she did not have access to decent work at the time. For ten years, she slept on the streets during the night and worked as a part-time domestic helper during the day.

Change comes slow

Three decades later, laughter hovers in the air; rainbow flags wave on the tuk-tuks, Phnom Penh immerses in the sea of color during the Pride Festival. These scenes may easily make people think that the LGBTIQ community has been openly accepted in Cambodia.

However, this is still far from the case.

“More and more people are coming out, but Cambodian society has yet to give these groups of people the support and understanding that they deserve,” stated Thida Kuy, LGBTIQ specialist for UN Women in Cambodia.

According to the United Nations’ Reveal the Rainbow Report on sexual and behavior starting since 1990, driven by the global HIV epidemic, resulted in raised awareness and discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).

The first Pride events were celebrated in 2003. A year later, King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s former King, made a public statement in support of same-sex relations in 2004. The royal statement has remained unchanged under the present King, who published an editorial in the Phnom Penh Post in 2012 entitled “Being Gay is Not Wrong.” Also, in 2012, Prime Minister Hun Sen, delivered a speech urging Cambodians to be more receptive towards on homosexuality.

Since then, the country has seen growing visibility of the LGBTIQ community and increased amounts of community organizing and social activities.

But despite all the support from the royal family and some public figures, anti-discrimination legislation has yet to be drafted and those who violate the rights of LGBTIQ people live with seeming impunity. Without legal protections, most of them often confront abuse mentally and physically from families, schools, and workplaces.

In 2017, a consortium of UN agencies launched a project aiming to reinforce ties between Cambodian civil society organizations working on LGBTIQ issues and the Cambodian Government. It is hoped that this will lead to legal reforms and increasing protection of LGBTIQ rights.

Out of the traditional cage

“When I came out as a transgender man, my family was so angry with me,” said Trika*, a 28-year-old LGBTIQ rights activist. “My mom asked me to make a decision: either I choose to be who I am [a trans man] or remain in the family. If I were to follow her expectations, she will still love and support me.”

“Traditional” family values play a significant role in the day-to-day life of Cambodian’s. Young people are expected to pursue marriage between a man and woman to form a new family, which is considered as a part of reinforcing social norms. While on the road of discovering their sexual orientations and gender identities, many of them face threats and pressure from the families.

Trika was 23-years-old when he was kicked out of his family home by his parents. Fortunately, Trika was supported by a non-government organization and was able to stay in a shelter for half a month.

According to a 2014 UNDP report, many parents disown their LGBTIQ children because they think it brings shame and dishonor to the family.

“I choose to be the true me. My mom said she doesn’t have a daughter who loves women. She cannot accept it,” said Trika.

Currently, he is living with his parents, but still faces physical and emotional violence sometimes.

“It’s already been five years. My father still hasn’t accepted me,” he sighed.

An Chou* is Trika’s partner, the two have been together for nearly three years. Ah majors in Law at Royal University of Law and Economics in Phnom Penh, the 21-year-old lesbian said she always faces indirect discrimination from classmates and teachers.

“My professor said in class that if one day we become lawmakers, we should not advocate same-sex marriage legalization.”

Trika sometimes visits An’s home, and he was the one who persuaded An’s mom to let An continue study in the university. In An’s mom’s view, Trika is like another daughter and an elder sister of An.

“I have to be ready, one day when her family finds out the truth, I may be physically attacked. But I love her. I have to protect her, let them do it to me,” Trika said.

LGBTIQ people, particularly youth, are vulnerable to homophobic attacks and abuse in the communities where they live, often from the people closest to them, like family, relatives, and neighbors, according to the UN report.

I am What I am

Now, at the age of 53, Ouk has been working as a part-time transgender sex worker for more than 20 years.

She has received many scars during the life journey of exploring her gender identity. In 1991, she was arrested and jailed for two years for being a sex worker, and now still faces daily verbal harassment in public spaces. But the scar that hurts her deepest was made by her family.

“My mom never looked at my face or spoke to me since I came out, but I have never felt regret,” she put her hands to her watery eyes and said, “I just want to be the real me.”

The UN in Cambodia took crucial steps in 2017 by organizing a series of events that would elevate the LGBTIQ community’s voice to the State. In a consultation workshop organized by UN Women, LGBTIQ representatives raised three key priority areas where policy change could make a difference in their lives: social acceptance by their communities and families, employment, and legal frameworks, which including gender identity, marriage and adoption rights.

Ouk has been waiting for legal protection and family acceptance for almost three decades. She would like to see the young LGBTIQ generation grow up in the safe spaces, where they could exercise their rights without discrimination and violence.

“One day, the society will accept that we’re right, the truth and love. I have this hope, that’s why I can stand up for it”, Trika concluded.

* Names have been changed to protect the identity