Cambodian law prohibits same-sex marriage, but that did not stop Ros Ravuth from marrying her long-time partner, Sinuon.
Ravuth, 52, has lived with Sinuon*, 38, in Kandal province’s Khsach Kandal district for 20 years, ever since the couple obtained the permission – if not the blessing – of local authorities to marry.
Ravuth said that when she made the request, the commune and village chiefs pressed her about whether she really wanted to get married and if she and her wife would live with and care for each other forever.
“I replied to them that I was sure, that I love my partner. We will live with each other forever, even though we are the same sex.”
A month later, authorities granted her a marriage permission letter, and the couple soon celebrated their wedding, despite objections from some relatives.
“We were so happy, and a lot of guests came to my wedding, because they had never seen a same-sex marriage,” said Ravuth, who now works in a garment factory to support her wife and their three adopted children.
A year after they married, Ravuth and her wife received their marriage certificate.
In Cambodia, “hundreds of lesbian couples live together as husband and wife,” said Srun Srorn, facilitator for LGBT advocacy group Rainbow Community Kampuchea and an organiser of Phnom Penh Pride, which wrapped yesterday. “We know of 50 [LGBT] couples just in Kampong Cham.”
“I would say there are more than a thousand LGBT couples in Cambodia,” he added.
Srorn said some gay couples have lived together for more than 40 years, and he knows that at least 15 have obtained marriage certificates – documents that identify one recipient as the “husband” and the other as the “wife”.
According to Article 6 of the current Marriage Law, signed in 1989, “Marriage shall be prohibited to a person whose sex is the same sex as the other.”
It also prohibits marriage to “a person whose penis is impotent”, those suffering from “leprous, tuberculosis, cancerous or venereal diseases, which are not completely cured” along with the “insane” and those possessing “mental defect”.
The 1993 Constitution, on the other hand, is light on such specifics, saying simply that individuals have the right to choose their partners, and it seems that growing numbers of local authorities are focusing on this more expansive understanding of marriage, said Srorn.
Many LGBT couples, he said, lack marriage certificates but have had wedding ceremonies, and local authorities have given them family record books, documents that Cambodian law mandates all families keep to identify spouses and biological and adopted children.
The law on family record books does not discuss the appropriate composition of a family, giving village and commune chiefs greater leeway than with the Marriage Law for de facto acknowledgment of gay couples, Srorn said.
This growing trend means that for Pride Week events this year, RoCK was able to identify and bring 76 lesbian and five gay male co-habitating couples from 18 provinces to Phnom Penh.
Srorn speculated that the discrepancy between numbers of female and male gay married couples throughout the country stemmed from broader gender differences in Cambodian society.
“Men – they can go out at night, so they meet a lot of friends and can pick up a lot of partners out there. Women don’t have that freedom to go and find other partners, so if they find one, they marry.”
Among the couples that attended Pride this year, more than 70 per cent have family books, and some have identification cards that recognise them as poor families eligible for government aid, Srorn said.
“We are happy local authorities are accepting them, even if national policy is not very clear on the law,” Srorn said.
But for Soung Pheakdey, 30, attitudes are not changing fast enough.
Pheakdey met her wife, Pok Sarath, in 2007, while they were both working in Malaysia.
The couple married last February in Preah Vihear and received a family book, but village and commune chiefs, citing the Marriage Law, refused to give them a marriage certificate, though they allowed the couple to have a wedding party.
“The wedding went smoothly, and we were happy that a lot of guests and relatives attended, but we were sad that the parents and relatives of my wife did not join, because they did not accept me as their son-in-law, and they still discriminate against us.”
As the “husband” in the marriage, Pheakdey, like Ravuth, takes on the traditionally male role of speaking on behalf of both herself and her wife for interviews.
“Because of the cultural norm,” Srorn said, “one has to be a husband and one has to be a wife, for gay couples too.”
Taking on a male role was natural for Pheakdey. In school, she wore long trousers and cut her hair short, causing some of her classmates to laugh at her and her mother to beat her, she said.
In third grade, she dropped out of school because she could not bear feeling that others were looking down on her.
In 2006, Pheakdey said, her mother forced her to marry a man, but not wishing to sleep with him, she fled and sought work in Malaysia, where she met Sarath and fell in love.
Before they married, the couple adopted a daughter, who is now five years old.
But whether this daughter will be able to inherit their property is unclear. Under a new adoption law implemented in 2011, couples must have a marriage certificate to adopt legally and thus guarantee their property will be passed on to their adopted children.
Lack of a marriage certificate could also threaten a partner’s chances of inheriting, Srorn said.
Nevertheless, Chou Bun Eng, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, said it was not necessary to amend the Marriage Law.
“Our law on marriage says a man and a woman are to be married, but when there is a marriage between a woman and a woman, you just register one as man and the other one as a woman,” she said. “We don’t talk about supporting them, but never ban them.”
Calling the issue of explicit LGBT rights “just an idea from Western countries”, she said, “The issue in Cambodia is not serious, because we already say in our Constitution that we respect everyone’s rights.”
“I don’t think parents are happy to see children that way, but we have no laws to ban them,” she added.
In 2007, Prime Minister Hun Sen made international headlines when he said he would disown his adopted daughter because she was gay, at the same time calling more generally for tolerance of LGBT individuals.
He repeated the appeal for tolerance last December, spurred, Srorn guessed, by consideration for the passing of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who had voiced support for same-sex marriage in 2004.
To gain further momentum for marriage rights, Srorn said that after Pride Week, he would sit down with local authorities to interview dozens of LGBT co-habitating couples and put together a collective statement to present to the National Assembly.
“In Cambodia, the law is very open, and they say it doesn’t discriminate, so I believe it will happen soon,” Srorn said.
Much has changed already in the past few decades. Couples who met during the Khmer Rouge were more focused afterwards simply on the chance to be together than on ceremonies and certificates, he said.
Noy Sitha, 61, and Hong Saroeun, of about the same age, are one such couple.
“After the Pol Pot regime, my wife and I celebrated a small marriage, to which we invited elders and relatives to witness that we became husband and wife as any other couple,” said Sitha, who wears her hair cropped short.
The couple now lives together in Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district.
“We could not get a marriage certificate like other couples,” said Sitha, “but I have a family book, where it’s written that I am the husband and my partner is the wife.”
The family book also lists the three children they have adopted from relatives.
“I cannot say the government accepts lesbian couples, because we don’t yet have a same-sex marriage law,” Sitha said. “We are trying to fight to ask the government to create a law. For myself, the hope is over because I am old, but I try for the next generation.”
Additional reporting by Chhay Channyda
* Name has been changed at the couple’s request.