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‘Rainbow couples’ fight for approval

Volunteers set up a stage for an event to celebrate LGBTIQ rights in May in Takeo province.
Volunteers set up a stage for an event to celebrate LGBTIQ rights in May in Takeo province. Sahiba Chawdhary

‘Rainbow couples’ fight for approval

While a large number of transgender and homosexual couples in Cambodia live together, marry and adopt children, they still face stigmatisation and discrimination in their daily lives, a new report by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights released today shows.

For the report, titled Cambodia’s Rainbow Families, CCHR conducted interviews with 121 individuals either currently or formerly in an LGBTIQ couple, which it terms “rainbow couples”, in nine provinces and analysed the legal framework of their rights. Government and local authority representatives were also interviewed.

The report finds that although rainbow couples face many legal obstacles, there is growing acceptance in Cambodian society of LGBTIQ couples living together and starting a family.

“[Many] currently co-habiting rainbow couples across Cambodia already live as spouses, some conduct unofficial wedding ceremonies, and many . . . have received important legal recognition in the form of family books issued by Commune authorities,” the reports says.

Often, however, it is not only legal obstacles but also social barriers that prevent rainbow couples from getting married.

Transgender man Noy Sitha, 66, told The Post yesterday that he and his partner have been in a relationship since 1975, survived the murderous Khmer Rouge regime and married in 1980 in a traditional ceremony in Phnom Penh with monks and elders giving them their blessings – despite it not being legally permissible. Still, he said, they faced discrimination because they were seen as a lesbian couple.

“When we first lived together our neighbours made fun of us saying, ‘How come women live together?’” he said. After getting to know them better, however, things changed. “After that they admired us. [They realised] that we are a husband and wife, and have a bread winner.”

CCHR, however, found that in spite of a self-reported decline in discrimination, a third of respondents said they were still discriminated against today.

For example, 39-year old garment worker Doung Sok An said in an interview yesterday that he would like to move in with and marry his partner, but is unable to do so because of stigma attached to him, as a transgender man, living with a woman.

His 42-year-old partner, whom he has been dating for four years, has three children from a previous marriage, aged between 19 and 25 years, who oppose her new relationship.

“Her family side discriminates against us. We have not moved in together, because my partner’s children cannot accept it,” he said. “My partner wants us to get married, wants my side to come to the engagement, but my family thinks her family would reject us.”

More than 90 percent of those interviewed for the report said marriage was important to them, but there is no right to same-sex marriage enshrined in Cambodian law. The report highlights that this is problematic, as marriage comes with numerous others rights, such as the right to adopt children, the right to joint ownership of property, have custody of children and receive inheritance.

Starting a family is exactly what matters to most rainbow couples. Almost 90 percent of respondents said that having a child was important to them.

One of them is Sitha who, together with his wife, has adopted three children. But the process wasn’t easy.

“When we adopted the children of other [people], our relatives criticised us, like, ‘What is the point of you raising other children as you can’t have children?’. But [with the children] we experience complete happiness,” he said.

And when his community saw that they could take good care of the children, their opinion changed. “They appreciate us having a complete family because we are able to take care of the children. I can give all of what my children need . . . and can afford my children to go to school,” he said.

But while Sitha and his wife were able to adopt children, Sok An is still waiting. “We want to adopt children when we move in together,” he said.

A striking 99.2 percent of those interviewed identified as transgender or gender non-conforming. One explanation the report gives for this is “the stereotypical and misogynistic gender norms which are deeply embedded in Cambodian society”.

And while the report highlights that this percentage is not representative of the whole LGBTIQ community, it argues that it proves the importance of a new gender recognition law. This law would entitle transgender people to change their gender on official documents.

As one half of most couples interviewed self-identified as transgender, a gender recognition law could pave the way for trans couples to legally get married, which would not require an amendment of the constitution.

Both Sitha and Sok An could then get married – officially and inked on paper.

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