Heng Hai, 52, from Kampong Chhang province, has been a ladyboy since the age of 18. Talking to Sylvain Gharbi, he remembers a traumatic coming-out period, the difference between the city and the province, and how acceptance towards ladyboys has changed over time.
“I came out to my family and friends after the downfall of the Khmer Rouge regime, in 1979. A defiant coming-out during their rule was unthinkable.
I remember those first feelings of overwhelming sadness. There was not much I could do. This was going to be my life.
Then, I knew very well the future would be bleak with tough times to face.
From the very beginning, people used violence and intimidation. Silence was my way of standing my ground. I would walk away. I didn’t care about people making fun of me.
Some of my friends rejected me; others accepted who I was. The vast majority turned against me. They said there was no future for ladyboys and looked on disapprovingly.
My family, however, showed their full support and sided with me.
Sometimes, I would dress myself up the best I could so people would admire me, be proud of me and show respect.
Evolution of perceptions between now and then has been tremendous. There has been a huge leap forward from the time of my coming-out up until now.
Before, the idea itself was not even structured or articulated. It would translate in flash rejection. Nowadays, discrimination still exists but to a much lesser extent and lots of men think I am a lady.
NGOs helped me. They promoted people’s awareness so their perceptions could change.
This was back in 2006/2007. I felt an improvement in the wake of their work. They talked to local authorities and told them our stories, our plight. Somehow, it sank in. People understood.
Phnom Penh is a great place for ladyboys. It has opportunities. It has possibilities. I would have been myself there.
Urban life is better on the outside but it is harder in some ways: harder to settle in, harder to find stability. It is more competitive. Traps are everywhere.
I have had three short relationships with three straight men in my whole life. I looked after them: I paid to get love and sex.
They are now married with families. Because I am a ladyboy, love does not last.
I had my time. This time is gone. I am too old now and do not think I will ever have a partner again.
As to having a family – this is just a dream that has long faded away. It will never happen.
I am a happy person: I am just giving here an unvarnished account of what reality is to me.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvain Gharbi at firstname.lastname@example.org