Sou Sotheavy . . . says the Cambodian Women's Union has won recognition for sex workers. If lesbians are similarly determined they will likewise be rewarded, but it will take a lot of work to build the support necessary to bring about change.
Pon Samnang has close-cropped hair and a face devoid of make up. Oversized men's
clothes hang loosely from her slight frame, but her lips are full and her cheek bones
high. Her androgynous beauty demands attention.
Samnang, 25, was just four years old when she realized she was a lesbian. She has
been grappling with the social implications of her sexual orientation ever since.
Her parents, who are farmers, were devastated when she first came out. Blaming her
for bringing them bad luck, they pleaded with her to change her behavior. But as
the years passed they have gradually grown to accept her as she is.
For Keo Samet, 26, parents have never been a problem - hers always knew she was a
lesbian and have loved and supported her all her life. But her siblings were initially
opposed to her sexuality.
"At first my brother and sister didn't like me being a lesbian," she explained.
"But we have talked about it a great deal and they now understand and love me."
By day Sien Vanna, 24, fixes air-conditioning units, by night she sells sex to wealthy
foreign and Khmer women. Her $280 monthly income goes towards supporting her parents
and her many girlfriends in Phnom Penh.
"After work I come home, shower, eat and then go out to meet my customers,"
she said. "My parents don't criticize me for anything - we have a very good
relationship. I worry more about my girlfriends - I know some of them are using drugs."
Samnang has just broken up with her long-term girlfriend. Now, she is trying to spend
all her time with men in an attempt to mend her broken heart. She is helped by her
job as a mechanic which keeps her in a male-dominated environment.
"I only spend time with men," she said. "If I spend time with women,
I will fall in love again. I work as a mechanic. I am the only woman working in the
garage. I am treated like one of the boys."
Social discrimination has been a hard fact of life for all these women. Consequently,
with the help of the Cambodian Women for Unity (CWU) organization, they have formed
Cambodia's first lesbian rights group. The Post attended the group's inaugural meeting
on March 17.
Being a lesbian can be difficult, Samet said. But she has an impressive self-belief
that allows her to take the sting from her fellow garment workers' comments.
"When people in the factory know I am a lesbian they sometimes discriminate
against me - both openly and secretly," she said. "But this is my character;
it is natural, and I can't change. Discrimination doesn't upset me now at all."
The precept "Turn the other cheek" proved true for Samnang: the mocking
of her peers gradually subsided as she refused to let it rile her.
"In my village I used to experience discrimination, but I just ignored it,"
she said. "I have always ignored people talking about me and gradually they
For Vanna, the gossiping of her friends over her sexual orientation has been a help
rather than hindrance: the majority of her wealthy clients hear of her by word of
"My foreign clients are mainly French and American women; my Khmer clients are
the children of the rich and powerful," she explains. "Everyone who knows
me knows my character - they know I like women and don't sleep with men. People hear
about my character and come to find me."
But while Vanna, Samnang and Samet have not allowed the widespread and institutionalized
discrimination encountered by lesbians in Cambodia to prevent them living as they
wish, there is one hurdle they still face - legal marriage.
While it is possible for two women to marry - Cambodia's first lesbian marriage happened
in 1995 - it is a complex process and the couples are currently sure to encounter
considerable difficulty in obtaining the official trappings of marriage - certificates,
documents, forms - necessary to make the union fully legal.
"The Cambodian marriage law only specifies that a man must be 20 and a woman
18 years old prior to marriage," said Sakheun Sabady, deputy director of legal
protection at the Ministry of Women's Affairs. "It does not mention whether
men can marry men or women can marry women - it just doesn't say. Nor does the Constitution."
But although lesbian marriage remains legally adrift, Sabady believes that with enough
popular support the system could mature, as it has in several Western countries.
"If there are many same-sex couples who protest and assert their right to get
married, then there will be change in this society which could lead to a Constitutional
amendment, "she said.
For some traditional Cambodian women, a good marriage and the subsequent child-bearing
cycle are the pinnacle of life's achievements.
"Most people say we destroy our future - we were born daughters so the achievement
of our lives should be our marriage," Samet said. "We don't want this,
we don't want marriage and children - so we are [perceived as] destroying our future.
But while Cambodia's lesbians defy the social norm in eschewing offers of husbands,
they are still looking for life partners and for the right to have their relationships
accorded the status of marriage should they wish.
"We are real people and this should be recognized," Samet said. "We
must struggle for social recognition, and then women could marry women."
Although she has had an excellent relationship with her fiancee for a number of years,
Keo Samet says they will not be getting married soon.
"Although my parents support my marriage, we will not wed. Firstly, we don't
have enough money to get married. But secondly, I am worried about the law."
Despite their personal success in preventing discrimination impinging on their daily
lives, Vanna, Samnang and Samet all recognize that the bigger battle for social and
legal recognition requires broader support.
"When we set up this organization we wanted to help sex workers," said
Sou Sotheavy, a transgendered sex worker who was born male but lives as a woman,
and works for CWU. "We may not be able to cure AIDs but we have helped sex workers
a lot. They are now recognized in society and feel able to assert their rights."
She argues that the past few years have seen an improvement in social perceptions
of sex workers.
"We have fought for our rights and now attitudes are changing," she said.
"People don't call us prostitutes any more, but sex workers."
Sotheavy says if lesbians are similarly determined they will be rewarded, but it
will take a lot of work to build the support necessary to bring about change.
"If we want to change the law we need a lot of support - we have to work together
to change social discrimination."
At a personal level Samnang has been successful in fighting discrimination, but she
believes that a change in the law will help lesbians in Cambodia in the future.
"I have never felt unable to do anything because of my sexuality, except to
marry my partner. I think that discrimination against lesbians would decrease if
the law were changed and we were given social and legal recognition. If the law were
to change then I would have a traditional Cambodian wedding with my girlfriend."