When Heng Ny laughs, hundreds of lines run across his face. Sitting in front of his simple house with cats and chickens at his feet, discussing his relationship is what brings out a smile. He and his wife seem like an average couple, but one thing is different: Ny is transgender.
Although they now live peacefully in their home in Takeo’s Trapaing Sap commune, in Bati district, day-to-day life was not always easy.
“Her parents and her grandmother accused me of having put a spirit in her to make her fall in love with me,” he said. “They tried to separate us. They even brought her to stay one night at a sorcerer’s house.”
The 50-year-old then broke into laughter before adding: “But she came back to me.”
Not only did she come back, she built a family with him. The couple now have two adopted children.
While lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) families often face discrimination in Cambodia, many couples with a transgender man manage to adopt children – either formally or informally – despite legal obstacles.
Legal recognition of their right to marry, and therefore adopt, is in many ways in the hands of commune and district authorities, a system that allows for flexibility, though it also leaves LGBT rights largely up in the air.
Once able to adopt, however, LGBT couples seem to experience a marked improvement in the support of families and communities for them, according to research released last year by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
Ny and his wife, Pel Nhork, met as teenagers while the Khmer Rouge were in power. They were friends at first, he said, and only got into a relationship a few years after the murderous regime ended.
“At the time, a village required people to help with the water reservoir, so we worked together and shared food. We cared for each other,” he said.
By 1984, the couple were ready to move in together but their family didn’t approve, not wanting their daughter with “a woman who acts like a man”. If Ny wanted to stay at Nhork’s house past midnight, his father-in-law would try to kick him out. “Her father prepared a knife. He just wanted to scare me, but I wasn’t scared,” he said with a laugh. Today, the family lives next door.
Researcher Kasumi Nakagawa says couples with one person identifying as a transgendered man are not uncommon, but acceptance in communities differs widely across the country.
“Some communities have high acceptance to such a family, and authority also grant family book to them, whilst some communities are more resistant to such union,” she said in an email. In order to get a family book as husband and wife, one member of a couple must have a male identification card. Lenient commune chiefs, either out of sympathy or ignorance, sometimes grant such cards to transgender men though they are not legally supposed to do so.
The differing levels of acceptance are apparent in talking to 49-year-old farmer Sreypich*, who lives in Tbong Khmum province. She said she had fallen in love with a transgender man when she was 16, but the community did not approve.
“They discriminate against us. They call my husband a ‘khteuy’,” she said, using a pejorative word for a gay person. “I like him because he is a very helpful man, and he gives me food to eat and help at work.”
She added that while she didn’t mind that people speak badly about her husband, he was embarrassed of not being accepted as a man in the community.
In more extreme cases, Nakagawa said, families punish transgendered men with forced marriage.In spite of disapproving of her partner, Nhork’s family in Takeo province never forced her to marry another, and things improved when the family saw that Ny was hard-working.
“After some time, they accepted me. In the beginning, they hated me and tried to separate us, but then they saw that I work hard and am a breadwinner,” Ny said with pride.
A major part of their acceptance lies in them having a family structure with kids.
“They stopped hating us because they saw the family making progress,” he said, adding that his wife’s family now even helped them take care of the child.
“I wanted to adopt a kid because I thought when I get older, when I fall sick, they could take care of me. “
In Tbong Khmum, Sreypich and her husband also adopted children because she hoped they could take care of them when they got old. “I love them like my biological children, so now we’ve become like other families,” she said.
About 88 percent of respondents in a CCHR survey indicated that having a child was important to them. But throughout the legal code, there are impediments to them leading normal lives. According to the law, only a man and woman can legally get married, and no provisions for same-sex marriage exist. Adoption, in turn, is only formally available for married couples.
And because there is no law allowing for a formal change in gender identification, couples including a transgender partner are viewed as same sex, meaning they cannot get married or adopt children.
Full adoption rights, the report by CCHR finds, was perceived by almost 70 percent of respondents as being very important to decrease discrimination, as the law could protect and support them.
While Nhork and Ny’s family became more accepting once they adopted children, Sreypich’s experience differed.Initially, her parents disapproved of her relationship, saying they would have “no future, no children together”.
But even when they adopted three children – now 9, 14 and 18 years old – acceptance didn’t improve much.
“They asked us mockingly why we would need to raise the three children – why not keep the money,” she said.
Sreypich worries her children would not be happy if they found out her husband was biologically female. They are unaware because although her husband never underwent surgery, his breasts are flat and he could easily hide the sex assigned to him at birth.
Back in Takeo province, Nhork had a less practical reason for wanting to adopt children. “When I saw other families have children, I felt a lack,” she said. Her first adopted child passed away at 7 months old, likely from malnutrition at a time when infant formula was impossible to find. “We could only bring her porridge,” she said. Since then, the couple have adopted two more children, who are now 24 and 2 years old, whom she says she loves “as if they are my own”.
Though they never had a traditional wedding or signed a marriage certificate, their family book lists them as husband and wife, and the commune and district authorities signed their adoption certificate.
According to the CCHR report, just over one in every five surveyed cohabiting “rainbow couple” had a family book.
For Ny, this was possible because authorities had noted Ny as “male” in his identity card. “They saw the way I am, so they made it a ‘he’,” Ny said.
Because of that concession, they are among about 39 percent of respondents who are listed as husband and wife in their family book, while almost 22 percent had been listed as siblings. The rest were listed as consisting of one partner as head of the family, or with the relationship not classified.
Men Vanna, Trapaing Sap commune chief, yesterday said he only took up his position last year and therefore hadn’t issued the family book to Ny and Nhork. He said he wouldn’t know what to do if a transgender couple wanted to get registered in a family book.
“I just don’t know how to do it, how to write it for them, because usually a family book is for couples with a husband, wife and children,” he said.
LGBT activist Srun Srorn said in Cambodia lax law enforcement made it possible for rainbow families to adopt children. In some cases, such as with Ny and Nhork’s infant child, LGBT couples adopt from siblings.
“Some of them have seven to eight children, grandchildren and few have great-grandchildren,” he said. “In Cambodia, law is not in practice, and anyone can adopt children based on their negotiation with the blood parents or family.”
While lenient commune chiefs in practice make adoptions by LGBT couples possible – with 70 percent of surveyed couples with family books having adopted children – Srorn said a lack of legal protection was one of the greatest challenges for them.
There is little recourse for families unable to persuade local authorities to bend the rules. In the absence of a same-sex marriage law, the CCHR authors argue, a gender recognition law would help to simplify the adoption process.
For Ny and Nhork’s son, Heng, his status as the adopted child of a “rainbow couple” has not always been easy, but he knows his parents love him like their biological child. Some of his friends question his father’s appearance and identity, and he was teased by children about not living with his biological parents. But he said he didn’t mind.
“I knew that they loved me, so I felt nothing,” he said.
While Nhork and Ny say they hadn’t experienced strong discrimination from their communities, things are likely much harder for gay couples and transgender women, said researcher Nakagawa.
In conducting research, she has never encountered gay couples who had adopted children, which she attributes in large part to the fact that many are not open in their sexuality, though she notes that levels of discrimination do seem to be improving.
“We found out that a strong and rigid social norm exist in regard to masculinities in Cambodia: that they should never be feminine,” she said by email.
“This society is manifested with patriarchy and its social norms, so there is a strict resistance for men who are trying or must be out of the male-box. However, for females, unless she is not breaking social norms such as having multiple partners, acceptance for her sexuality to be in a same-sex union is rather high.”
*Name changed to protect the source’s identity