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Transgender identity crisis

5 ladyboy at wat phnom
A transgender prostitute waits for customers at Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Vandy Rattana/Phnom Penh Post

When asked to choose an ideal identity, one ladyboy in Phnom Penh told researchers, “I want to be a real girl. I was a girl in my previous life.”

The interviewee explained that according to village elders ladyboys had been women in past lives but had stolen other women’s husbands, and so were reincarnated as transgender.

Ironically, the stigma surrounding ladyboys’ sex and gender, rather than causing them to suppress this part of their identity, often pushes them to view themselves disproportionately in terms of it, researchers said yesterday during a presentation of their findings in a Phnom Penh workshop.  

In interviews earlier this year with 50 biologically male transgender sex workers around Phnom Penh, researchers from anti-trafficking NGO Love146 found that 90 per cent of respondents said their best friends were other transgendered persons.

“[Interviewees] just felt safe with other transgendered friends and NGOs,” said Jarrett Davis, the study’s research coordinator. He added that even those “safe” encounters were framed in terms of ladyboys’ sexuality and therefore were limited to “a very narrow view of identity.”

A narrow view may limit ladyboys’ perceptions of other options for work besides sex work, Davis said.

One the one hand, 46 per cent of interviewees said they started sex work for pleasure and 56 per cent said they liked their jobs.

On the other hand, more than half reported having been forced to have sex, and 64 per cent said they would take an alternate job for $80 per month – less than the monthly average of about $100 that respondents reported currently to be earning partly or solely from sex work.

When asked what other jobs they saw as available to transgendered individuals, and separately, what skills they would want to learn, beautician work and hairdressing were the most common responses.

These responses, Davis said, suggested ladyboys felt most able to move into lines of work traditionally defined as feminine “because that’s what’s in the field of sight”.

Davis added that principle groups from which participants said they had faced discrimination were family members and police, with police reportedly responsible for 39 per cent of physical assaults mentioned by interviewees.

“I really hate the police – they chase us like dogs,” said one interviewee; others reported police raping them and framing them by planting drugs in their pockets.

National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith said he did not believe that police harassed or discriminated against ladyboys.

“This has never been reported to us. There is no legal instrument talking about people like that, but we respect their rights,” he said.

“In our law, we have only two sexes: man and woman. Even though there are no others besides [these], there is no discrimination. We always consider them as human beings, as our people.”

Researchers, however, argued that their interviews told a different story and noted that the Khmer term for a straight man literally means “real man”.

One respondent told interviewers, “I want to be a real man, because gay life means so much suffering.”

Another said, “I want to be a real person, like a man or a woman” – “which,” Davis noted, “implies that [they believe] they are neither”.



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