Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Gender-benders take a bow

Gender-benders take a bow

Gender-benders take a bow


"Miss Poppy," born Leang Sothea, finds acceptance in success.

Miss Poppy embraced her female identity in front of thousands of television viewers

on March 19 when she was crowned Cambodia's first transvestite beauty queen. Born

as Leang Sothea, the19-year-old triumphed over 30 other Cambodian trans-vestites

who stepped out of the closet to take part in TVK's Thai-style "lady-boy"

beauty queen contest.

Before Leang Sothea was born, the midwife was certain a girl was on the way. Her

mother set to work sewing girl's clothes in preparation for the arrival - but "Poppy"

was born a boy.

Ever since, all "she" ever wanted was to grow up to fulfill the midwife's

prediction and her mother's expectations.

"I've had a girl's character since birth," she said. "During my childhood,

I preferred to make friends with girls. I liked playing with the girls and wearing

skirts and girl's clothes. I might have a man's body, but in my mind I am a woman."

Miss Poppy's win in the "lady-boy"contest comes as no surprise to those

who meet her. With her almond eyes, long-fingered hands and delicate features, Poppy

would give Cambodia's regular beauty queens a run for their money.

It has been an uphill battle for her to reach this point.

"In Cambodia, people are narrow-minded at heart and they don't prize what the

'third sex' people can offer," she said. "People born with the 'third sex'

character dare not appear in society for fear that it will look down on them."

Life as a member of the "third sex" in Cambodia is characterized by taunts

and misunderstandings, Poppy says. "My parents were not satisfied with me and

said that I would have a bad future if I had girl's character."

But after being crowned Cambodia's transvestite beauty queen, Poppy says her unique

sexuality has turned into an unexpected source of family pride .

"Now my parents are happy that I won the contest," Poppy said. "They

are proud."

The beauty contest has had a similar effect on Cambodians as a whole, according to

the show's producer Tith Thavrith.

The objective of the contest was to gauge public opinion about matters of divergent


"I learned that people liked the program. I was not convinced that I would gain

the support of the audience. I feared people would criticize my program but they

were positive," he said.

Sim Sarak, Director General of Administration with the Ministry of Culture and Fine

Arts, said there was no intention to ban such programming, though he cautioned that

in his opinion the pageant was "inappropriate for the Khmer culture".


Sarak warned against any discrimination against Ca-bodian transvestites. "They

enjoy the same rights as other people," he emphasized.

For Miss Poppy and her friends, the contest has become a kind of debutante's ball,

legitimizing their presence in society for the first time.


Stepping out of the closet - Cambodia's transvestite beauties on parade.

Up a muddy laneway just a stone's throw from TVK is the tiny shack occupied by "Miss

Wandi", 30.

Wandi also spent her childhood wishing to be a girl, rushing home from school every

day to change into girls' clothes.

Tears welled up in her eyes as she recalled her family life.

"My parents would swear at me every day and tell me not to wear girl's clothes.

So at 17 I left home where I could dress as I pleased," she said.

Her freedom was short-lived. After a stint in a government job she was dismissed.

"They all wondered if I was a man or I was a woman and my boss said 'We don't

like your hair and clothes, you can go'," she said. "I was so sad I just

walked and walked aimlessly."

Wandi ended up in the provinces singing for money where she could never be sure if

her audience would pay her or throw rocks at her. When the rainy season drove her

audience indoors, sex work became her only means to survive.

"I went to the park near Wat Botum and started working. That was around eight

years ago" she said. "There I can make 4000 to 5000 riels from each of

the Khmer men or $10 or $20 from a foreigner".

It's a common problem according to Meas Chanthan of the Urban Sector Group (USG)

which operates the Kingdom's only transgender assistance program in Phnom Penh.

According to Chanthan, Cambodia's "third sex" is frequently subject to

family violence and discrimination by employers and doctors. They are exposed to

a lot of danger in their work, being regularly robbed or assaulted, and exposed to

STDs and HIV.

Chanthan points out that rates of HIV are higher among transgendered sex workers

than others in Cambodia's sex trade. "The workers say their customers don't

like them using any lubricant... and they find that condoms break or come off."

The USG is one of the few lifelines that the sex workers have. Each week Chanthan

takes his moto to visit members of Phnom Penh's transgendered population and takes

small deposits to their meager savings accounts in an effort to place a safety net

under an otherwise precarious existence.

"We explain to them that the purpose of having savings and provide HIV education

and training in negotiation skills so they can talk with their customers and police"

he said.

Mention the recent beauty pageant to Miss Wandi and her sadness melts away. "I

was very happy to see that on TV because now many more people accept us. Now when

I go out people say to me 'You're beautiful, why weren't you on TV?'," Wandi



"The program was very good because it disseminated information about the

'third sex' to the country".

Cambodian historians say the while the TVK beauty contest was undoubtedly a result

of contemporary Thai influence, there is nothing new about the 'katoey' in Cambodia.

One scholar consulted by the Post speculated that the Thai word for "transvestite"

was derived from the Khmer word "katoey", used for both transvestites and


In Thailand contest winners can walk away with cruises, big prize money and an entry

to international competition, a far cry from the Riel 500,000, won by Miss Poppy.

But Poppy insists money was not the issue.

"I felt very happy when I won the contest. Money is not more important than

honor. Before people looked down on me, now where ever I go people like me,"

said Poppy, who's discovered a new-found self-confidence.


Miss Poppy (right) poses with third-placed Kissany Vipha.

And the future? Miss Poppy doesn't proffer the true beauty queen answers about world

peace and finding a cure for AIDS. Her ambitions are more humble.

"I hope to become a well known beautician in Cambodia," she said. And,

sounding a bit more like a regular beauty queen, she adds that she would also like

to "...issue an appeal to the government to make a law to protect people like

us. We just want to be included in society."

Her ambitions don't include any surgery in order to become a "real" woman

- and third-place contestant Miss Kissany Vipha, agrees.

"I don't want to change my sex. I just want to live naturally, try to do good

things and preserve my good karma so I'll not be born like this in the next life,"

Vipha said. "I just want to be born a real woman or a real man, not like this."



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