Sou Sotheavy’s struggle for LGBT rights in the Kingdom recently resulted in her winning the David Kato Vision and Voice Award in Berlin. But the fight for LGBT Cambodians goes on.
In 1940, Sou Sotheavy was born a biological male in Takeo province. But for as long as she can remember, she has felt like a woman.
In the years leading up to the Khmer Rouge regime in 1975, Sotheavy immersed herself in the burgeoning performing arts scene flourishing in Phnom Penh while working as a military nurse.
Like other survivors of the communist rule under which two million died, Sotheavy lost her entire family. She was raped, tortured and forced into a marriage with a woman.
After surviving fierce persecution, especially because she identified as transgender, she dedicated her life to human rights advocacy, beginning with HIV/AIDS outreach.
In 1999 she founded the Cambodian Network for Men Women Development (CMWD), the first Cambodian NGO to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities in the Kingdom.
Last week Sotheavy, who is in her seventies, was awarded the David Kato Vision and Voice Award during a gala ceremony at the Berlin Film Festival.
Presented annually alongside a $10,000 grant designed to bolster the winner’s cause, the award – which celebrates the legacy of David Kato, a Ugandan LGBT rights campaigner and human rights activist who was murdered in his home in Kampala in 2011– is bestowed upon individuals who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and courage in advocating for the rights of LGBT individuals.
Active throughout 15 provinces, Sotheavy’s CMWD has provided much needed capacity building to LGBT groups, providing invaluable support for local programmes and advocacy and training LGBT rights activists.
The activist travelled from Germany to Cambodia this week, arriving home thrilled and exhausted.
Sotheavy hopes the award will inspire people to join the movement against discrimination in Cambodia.
“I was so excited to be in Berlin speaking to 35,000 people from more than 190 countries during the award ceremony,” she said in an interview in Phnom Penh.
“This award was given individually and not to my organisation but with this $10,000, I will continue to strengthen the capacity and rights of my team,” Sotheavy said.
There is still some way to go to change perceptions, she added.
“This country’s government and media still does not count LGBT Cambodians as ordinary people. We are called khteuy, which hurts our feelings because it’s discrimination. It’s not a proper term for us.”
Local LGBT campaigner Srun Srorn, who has known Sotheavy since 2009, said it was a proud day for all LGBT Cambodians, proving that their families should never be ashamed.
“The award can help show the world and the Cambodian government that transgender Cambodians and LGBT Cambodians have existed before and during the Khmer Rouge,” Srorn said.
Nuon Sidara, project coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights’ Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity project said LGBT people continue to be marginalised in Cambodia.
Sidara said that living standards – adequate shelter and food – are the primary issues for transgender Cambodians along with access to jobs because of stigmatisation, discrimination and bullying in workplaces and schools.
“Automatically, Sotheavy should receive this award because she is very active and has dedicated her life to advocat[ing] for the LGBT movement in Cambodia,” she said.
“Secondly, she is a role model for the LGBT community and has helped the whole country begin to recognise that transgender rights have an important role in society and not just LGBT groups.”
Wan-Hea Lee, a representative of the Cambodian office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, pointed to research showing that LGBT Cambodians face high levels of stigma, discrimination and exclusion at home, schools, workplaces, health facilities and public spaces.
Transgender Cambodians tend to be exposed to greater prejudice, stigma, discrimination and violence than other LGBT people, the research indicates, and are subject to higher rates of police harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention as they are frequently identified as criminals, gang members, thieves or drug users.
“I know that [Sotheavy] is one of the oldest LGBT activists in Cambodia, and that she is known as one of the most vocal and bravest activists in the LGBT community,” Lee said.
“I hope that this award will inspire and encourage more people to join the anti-discrimination movement in Cambodia,” she added.
Sotheavy said she intends to use the grant money to continue countering the ubiquitous challenges confronting LGBT Cambodians, she said, especially in the country’s rural provinces where education levels are low, discrimination is rampant and LGBT people are frequently forced to hide their true identities for fear of persecution from their neighbours.
In a statement, she said: “I will fight until the end of my life. I will not stop until the rights for LGBT exist like for other people.”
Additional reporting by Will Jackson.