As the Kingdom celebrates Pride Week, many Cambodians still struggle to find acceptance from their families and in wider society. Will Jackson reports.
After Meas Sophanuth – who was born with female anatomy but identifies as a male – started wearing clothing “like a man” in high school, his mother tried to force him to stop.
Terrified that Sophanuth would be seen as “unnatural” and bring shame to the family, she confiscated his phone, cut him off from his friends, confined him to the family’s house and eventually took him to a Kru Khmer, or traditional healer.
Despite progress in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement in Cambodia, ahead of this week’s Pride celebrations activists said there was still significant social pressure to conform to traditional male and female gender roles through means such as forced “curing”.
Sophanuth was taken to a house in Banteay Meanchey, where the Kru Khmer lit candles and incense and then chanted while dousing Sophanuth with water.
But despite going back and undergoing the ritual twice more, Sophanuth said it had no effect.
At an interview at a community centre in Stung Meanchey this week, Sophanuth wore a long-sleeved top and trousers and had his hair cut short, cropped on the sides and bunched on top in a little pony tail.
His only jewellery was a small dragon pendant and, on his left hand, a simple silver ring – a gift from his girlfriend.
Sophanuth, who identifies as a female-to-male transgender rather than as a lesbian, explained that his mother’s reaction to his gender variation was traumatic.
“After that, I did not feel warm to my parents anymore,” he said. “They fright-ened me. I felt like they’re not my family any more.”
Rainbow Community Kampuchea’s (RoCK) Collette O’Regan, who is one of the organisers of this week’s Pride activities, said traditional family structures were extremely important in Cambodian culture and people who deviated from expected male and female gender roles were considered “unnatural”.
“One of the things people use to explain it is that they’re mentally ill,” O’Regan said.
“They take them to the monks at a pagoda or a Kru Khmer and ask them to intervene and get rid of the bad spirits that are causing the problem.”
She said that men were more able to pursue same-sex relationships because their lives were less controlled than women’s.
“Parents tend to monitor their daughters much more than their sons,” she said.
O’Regan pointed out that the World Health Organization only removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses on May 17, 1990. This date is now celebrated as the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHO).
She said the solution to homophobia here was more education about gender diversity – and that the work had only just begun.
“That’s one of the things we are trying to do during Pride,” she said. “We’re trying to raise awareness, and step-by-step people’s understanding is growing.”
Activities so far during the 11th annual Pride Week have included an LGBT film festival and workshops on the LGBT movement, activism, family acceptance and sexual identity and gender orientation. A community day, fashion show and party are to be held on Saturday.
In some ways Cambodia is already relatively accepting of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Several openly LGBT bars operate freely in Phnom Penh and Cambodia is often touted as a gay-friendly tourist destination.
The country’s dominant religion, Buddhism, does not teach that homosexuality is wrong, unlike some Christian and Muslim traditions.
Venerable Thorn Vandong, the executive director Buddhism for Social Development Action, said Buddhism did not discriminate against LGBT people.
He said monks conducting rituals to change people’s gender or sexuality were not acting according to Buddhist teaching.
There are also no laws against homosexuality, and LGBT people are assumed to have the same rights to equal treatment enshrined in the Kingdom’s constitution.
And while the constitution specifically prohibits same-sex marriage, there have nonetheless been recorded instances of same-sex couples marrying thanks to sympathetic local authorities.
However, Cambodia’s cultural focus on family means there is still intense pressure for sons and daughters to fulfil traditional gender roles, marry and have children.
LGBT rights campaigner and Pride organiser Srun Srorn travels around Cambodia listening to the stories of LGBT people and providing them with support.
He said their families often tried to isolate and control them by confining them to their homes, not letting them go to school and taking away their money, mobile phones and motos.
Many had told him of their experiences enduring attempted “cures”, he said.
“Usually the Kru Khmer will chant something, sometimes they burn the head, back or palm,” he said.
“When they burn they believe the bad spirits will fly away. Sometimes they use the bamboo to hit the person.”
Eventually, succumbing to social and financial pressure, most are forced to marry against their will.
In Cambodia’s Cham Muslim minority community, LGBT people also face pressure to follow traditional roles, but not because they are perceived to be ill.
H E Zakariya Adam, the deputy chairman of Highest Council of Islamic Affairs of Cambodia and minister attached to the prime minister’s office, said that Cambodia’s Cham Muslim community considered homosexuality a sin rather than a mental llness.
“The Lord banned absolutely to love the same sex because it will destroy our race,” he said.
He said lesbian and gays were not accepted in the Muslim community and dress codes were to be strictly adhered to, with men dressing as men and women as women.
If parents found out their children were involved in homosexual acts, they should try to educate and be kind to them in order to change their behaviour, he said, adding that the whole community should help to educate them.
“If we find out anyone loves the same sex, we will try to educate and do more goodness to them,” he said. “If he or she still not follow, we will remove their freedom, we will detain them in the room.
“No one in the community will be friends with them and hate them as well.”
When asked this week about why she took Sophanuth to a Kru Khmer, Sophanuth’s mother, Som Bronith, began to weep.
She said she wanted to change his mind so that he would begin obeying his parents again.
“I don’t want my daughter to walk in the wrong way which in society is discriminated against,” she said.
“She is female, she should act as a woman.
“I will still love her as daughter if she comes back alone but I will not accept her partner.
“She only wants to act as a man because she has a wrong relationship with her friend. It is not her nature.”
Sophanuth, who is saving money to pay for hormone therapy and surgery to physically become a man in the next two or three years, said he still hoped to eventually reconcile with his family.
“I don’t want to force my mother to accept me being transgender,” he said.
“I just want her to love me for who I am.”
Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng.