When Soth Yun realised she was a lesbian at age 20 her family told her it was her punishment for sinning in a previous life.
Like most rural Cambodians who come out to their family and community, the young woman faced a world of prejudice and opposition – cut off from information and other ‘out’ lesbians.
Now, at age 58, she and her girlfriend, who she calls ‘wife’, live together with their stepdaughter and two grand children in Takeo province.
This week, the couple will join 100 other lesbian and gay Cambodians from 15 provinces to celebrate Pride Week in Phnom Penh.
“The key message is that we are not different from other people, we are not strangers. We are completely a part of this society, with different talents, skills and knowledge,” she said.
“If [Cambodians] claim that we have a beautiful culture, why can’t we respect the differences in our society?”
The rural LGBT communities will join the better-established urban community for five days of festivities that run from May 16-20.
Discrimination against gay and lesbian people is particularly rife in rural areas, said Collette O’Regan, a volunteer for Pride Week.
“There a big divide between urban living and rural living, along the lines of access to media, access to Internet and social media. All the things that help people connect and break down isolation and access more information, more understanding for themselves.”
Srorn Srun, who is a facilitator at Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK), which is organising Pride Week, said that Pride Week intends to show LGBT Cambodians that there is a respectable place for them in society.
“We want to show them they are not alone, and that more and more people accept them,” said Sorn, who added that the festivities coincide with International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) on May 17.
“Pride week means everything to me,” said Rith Phirun, who works as an administrative assistant at Siren Media in Phnom Penh.
“I love to go out and meet others that are the same as me,” he said.
When he came out four years ago, while living in Siem Reap, he “had so many problems with family, neighbors and some other people that were brainless, who didn’t understand what it feels like to be gay, to have all the people around us hate,” he said.
Ly Pisey, 29, who is volunteering at Pride Week, said that she faced similar problems when she came out as lesbian to her mother in 2010 after getting the courage from her involvement in 2009’s Pride.
“She was very sad to hear it. I always tried to discuss with her indirectly by talking about my friends, and it was okay when it was someone else. But it was shocking when it was me.”
“Later on she became stronger, and told me: ‘You are still my daughter.’”
This year’s Pride Week events will include workshops hosted by human rights lawyers and police on the ways that the law can be unfairly used to persecute LGBT, and what people can do to protect themselves.
“Often there are cases where for one reason or another, [LGBT] get arrested,” said O’Regan.
“Sometimes it’s a legitimate arrest, but often times it’s just an arrest coming from stigma, just because the police can abuse their power and they choose these folks to do it to.”
In other cases, well-intended anti-trafficking laws have been used to persecute lesbians, such as the case of Phlong Srey Rann, a teenager who was accused by her girlfriend’s family of kidnap and rape in 2011.
“Their idea was to create a criminal case, and hope that would instill fear in them to break up,” said O’Regan, who said that the two teenagers met at the garment factory where they worked. “But they didn’t, so the police got involved.”
Although the defense maintained that the girlfriend was of age, and a copy of the teenager’s alleged birth certificate and family book provided to the Post last year by her employer set her age as 19 at the time of the arrest, Srey Rann was nonetheless sentenced to five years in prison before being acquitted in January 2013.
Since Srey Rann’s arrest, O’Regan said that she is aware of five other cases where the families accused their daughters of similar kidnapping charges.
However, Pisey said that RoCK intends to work on improving relations with the authorities.
“We don’t want miscommunication that we are enemies just because of this case,” said Pisey. “For many police and authorities, there is not broad awareness. We will invite local police and authorities who understand us, who support us.”
Nonetheless, O’Regan said that the case represents the problems facing lesbians, who she said face more discrimination than their gay male counterparts.
“The moment a lesbian comes out in Cambodia is when she cuts her hair, so it’s all about how you look. If that’s out of tune, that’s what gets people talking about you.”
Furthermore, O’Regan said that traditional gender roles give gay men more leeway.
“They have more outlets to cope with that difficult family environment. They can stay out late, and a have a double life more easily than girls can.”
However, O’Regan said that rural migrant worker in Phnom Penh garment factories are experiencing some previously unknown independence from tradition.
“When girls come to the city to become garment workers, they get more anonymity. And they’re earning money, so they get more negotiation power in the family. For lesbians, that’s what’s helped them come out and eventually get accepted. The family recognises that she is still being a good daughter fulfilling her duty to the family.”
In Yun’s case, she and her girlfriend have adopted traditional gender roles, albeit in an unconventional manner.
“My girlfriend and I are women, but in the role of my family, I am the husband and she is my wife. I make money for my family, such as by being a motodop driver, climbing up the palm tree to make the natural palm-wine and palm-water, as well as I plow the rice fields. My wife does the housework.”