She waited patiently at the office of the Women’s Network for Unity because she had a message she wanted to deliver to Cambodia through the media.
“Stop discriminating against transgendered people because this discrimination forces us into sex work to survive,” Touch Srey Leak said, explaining that it was impossible for her to get a job in the formal sector. She also said she wanted to “suggest to local authorities and police that they stop raiding and arresting sex workers, because they do this work because they have no choice”.
She said this quietly and without anger – as though she believed that if people understood her dilemma they would change their attitude towards her. She also asked whether the interview would be translated into Khmer because this was the audience she wanted to reach.
“Because you discriminate against me as a transgendered person I am forced to do sex work, and then you discriminate against me again for doing this work,” the 24-year-old from a village in Kandal province reiterated in her quiet logic.
Like most transgendered Khmers, Touch dislikes the Thai word “Kathoey”, which is often translated as “ladyboy” in English, but is used pejoratively here, even though some scholars say this is the culture the term originated in. Women born as men here prefer to be called Srey Sroh, which means “Beautiful Girl”: a phrase that fits Touch to a T.
“I started dressing as a woman when I was about 16 because I felt attracted to men and I thought this would interest them,” she explained. She liked the feeling and soon realised that she was a real woman. Her family, however, reacted badly. For two years they shunned her, refusing to speak to her or even look at her, she recalls.
At 18 she decided to move to Phnom Penh, arriving by bus. “When I came here I knew no-one, but on the first day I met another Srey Sroh and she invited me to stay with her,” Touch says. Kreal Pau, who Touch refers to as her “big sister” also taught her make-up tips and introduced her to beauty salons.
Salon owners are always friendly, Touch says. “They always praise our beauty.”
Touch drifted into sex work because she could find no other job, but she believes a shift is underway in Cambodia to a less disdainful and more accurate understanding of Srey Sroh. She points to the popularity of transgendered television personality Poppy as the breakthrough. “Poppy’s a good symbol for transgendered people. She’s our heroine,” Touch says. “She also has enough money to transform her body to be a woman’s. She has had the opportunity to have a better life.”
Much of Touch’s earnings go towards supporting her family. She returns home once a month to visit her parents and give them about US$50, even though they still reject her. “I’d like to give more but it is very expensive to live in Phnom Penh,” she says.
In general, Khmer media is becoming less belittling of transgendered people, and more sympathetic to gay and lesbian people, Touch says. She points to the hit song “Tears of a gay” by An Visal as one example. The song is about a gay person who gets cheated by a boyfriend pretending to be gay in order to steal.
“It’s very popular because the song is good advice,” Touch says. “It talks about a very common problem. Even biological women get cheated by their boyfriends and husbands,” she adds. Touch estimates that about 70 per cent of all men are untrustworthy, and this is the reason why she prefers “part-time boyfriends”.
“I don’t want a full-time boyfriend because they are dangerous,” she says.
Touch has one wish and one dream. Her wish is that her parents accompany her to the blessing ceremony at Wat Tuol Tompong on the last day of Pride Week, and her dream is to have enough money to open her own business so she can support herself, and her family.