In addition to the two genders, male and female, Cambodia’s national language Khmer also knows the third gender kteuy, which describes a person who has the physical characteristics of one gender but the behavior of the other. However, the linguistics here is already much further than the situation for LGBT people in the country. Although gay pride has been taking place regularly in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, since 2003, Prime Minister Hun Sen also made negative headlines because he rejected his lesbian adoptive daughter in 2007. Subsequently, however, he relativized his actions by publicly declaring that he did not recommend parents to do the same. Reporter Sarah traveled around the Asian kingdom alone as a woman and could get an idea about the local LGBTQ+ community and gay men in Cambodia. After Georgia, Lebanon, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Russia, she is now analyzing the Asian country on life as gay and LGBTQ + in Cambodia for Couple of Men.
Written by Sarah Tekath
Translated by Karl Krause
LGBT in Cambodia – Implement, not just accept
Even if homosexuality has never been illegal in the country’s history, same-sex relationships are still not recognized before the law. There are also no anti-discrimination laws in place, not even talking about the right to get married or to adopt a child.
One who is committed to improving the legal situation for LGBT people in Cambodia is Sidara Nuon, coordinator of the SOGI program launched by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) in 2010. The abbreviation SOGI stands for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. The NGO is committed to creating a legal basis on which a strong LGBT community can emerge. The activist explains: “Many people in Cambodia still believe that LGBT people come from another universe. That is precisely why we must create awareness in society for the existence and, consequently, also for the rights of LGBT people.” Politicians currently believe that LGBT people are a minority and their needs are not necessarily a top priority.
That is why CCHR is currently making a concrete effort to give LGBT people the right to marry in the country, as Article 45 of the Constitution still defines marriage as a community between men and women. At the same time, anti-discrimination laws are to be implemented, since members of the community are exposed to severe degradation, insults, and bullying at school and at work. The above-mentioned linguistic third gender kteuy is used as a bad word, shows the report ‘Rainbow Khmer: From Prejudice to Pride’ published at the end of 2012, by CCHR.
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Discrimination by teachers
The conservative attitude of the parent generation can also be found in the teachers at Cambodian schools because studies have shown that more than half of the teaching staff are actively involved in teasing LGBT people. CCHR has therefore developed a program to create more understanding of the spectrum of sexual identity in schools. “However, the students are not the problem,” says activist Sidara Nuon, “the younger generation is tolerant. But if the teachers simply ignore the teaching material or are not behind it themselves, the best curriculum will not help.” Therefore, once the SOGI program has officially become part of the curriculum, the NGO also wants to offer workshops for teachers or lesson plans.
After coming out, rejected by parents
But LGBT people experience hostility not only in public spaces such as school or work but also in their own personal environment. The government’s assumption that there are hardly any followers of the LGBT community in Cambodia is primarily based on the fact that a coming-out is associated with considerable conflicts and risks, which is why many choose not to do so. If a family learns that their son or daughter is homosexual, the parents often reacted with violence, house arrest or treatments with traditional Khmer medicine, Sidara Nuon knows. It is not uncommon for healers to be brought in to drive out the evil spirits that cause homosexuality.
Many also believe that homosexuality is something that has been imported from the West to undermine traditional Cambodian family values, or that can be caused by chemicals in the food. Conservative Buddhists are convinced that homosexuality is a punishment for sin from a previous life.
The NGO Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK) found out in a study in 2019 that 81 percent of lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people experienced emotional violence from their family. If these measures fail to work, the children would mostly be rejected, explains Sidara Nuon. Like in the case of Prime Minister Hun Sen. In 35 percent of those affected, this form of emotional abuse leads to thoughts of suicide, the study shows.
If the children are of legal age when they come out, the measures taken by the parents are even more radical. “Women, in particular, are often forced into marriages,” says the activist. Part of the parents’ motivation is also their own financial security in old age because, in Cambodia, where the concept of pension does not exist, the family of the children is responsible for care. RoCK research found out that 10 percent of LGBT people experience sexual violence in these forced marriages.
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A place to be yourself – LGBTQ+ in Cambodia
Often, however, it is not just external influences that LGBT people in Cambodia have to deal with, but also internalized homophobia, i.e., self-loathing for their own sexual identity. “Many gays in Cambodia believe they don’t deserve better than to offer themselves as sex workers because they are gay,” said Australian Jason Argenta, who moved to Siem Reap in 2014. Together with his partner Tola An, he runs the Café Krousar, which also includes the A Place To Be Yourself (APTBY) project.
Here, members of the local LGBT community have the opportunity to receive information in a non-judgmental space, get in touch with each other, and exchange ideas. An additional goal is to create awareness and sensitivity for what terms and expressions in Khmer can be perceived as hurtful or discriminatory, since it is common even within the LGBT community to use swearwords for each other.
Comparable workshops are also offered for companies and local NGOs, although the public is usually silent about them. “Although many companies take part in our training courses, they want to avoid being linked to on Facebook or any other social media channel,” explains the activist. The concern about negative reactions in public is too great.
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Gay in Cambodia
In cooperation with local clinics, hospitals, and doctors, APTBY also offers medical/psychological counseling, free contraceptives, and HIV tests. “There is a mistrust of doctors that if they’re also gay, they might spread test results for sexually transmitted diseases to the community, contrary to medical confidentiality,” said Jason Argenta. The Australian explains that he has had no problems even with his own coming-out, so he now wants to help others accept their own sexual identity. His partner Tola An, however, has had different experiences.
“I was interested in dance at an early age and now also work as a dancer in Siem Reap. However, my father would prefer it if I had a more ‘male’ job.” He also never officially outed himself to his parents, although he suspects that his mother knows. “My father always asks when I’m finally going to marry and give him a grandson.” He thought Jason was just a good friend and even when he announced that the two wanted to build a house together, he said that the two of them will then be able to live there with their future wives. Outside the city centers of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, this way of thinking is expected to be the standard.
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LGBT and Gay Travelers in Cambodia
In Cambodia, efforts to attract international LGBT travelers to the country were made at an early stage, for example with the ‚Adore Cambodia!‘ Tourism campaign launched in 2011, but only with moderate success. Especially in the city of Siem Reap, where the Café Krousar and APTBY are located, the LGBT scene is more evident than in the capital Phnom Penh. Gay saunas and massage studios can also be found there, but it can be assumed that the market there is more oriented towards sex tourism than trying to strengthen the local LGBTQ+ community.
Meanwhile, numerous gay bars, drag shows, and men-only hotels have opened in Siem Reap. Pride events have also been held there since 2004, and since 2018 even on an annual basis taking place in May. However, there has never been an official LGBT & Gay Pride Parade.
However, social media have shown a positive change in recent years, confirm Tola An, Jason Argenta, and Sidara Nuon. But this mainly affects young people who are more open and tolerant anyway. Older generations continued to maintain their conservative ideas about the LGBTQ+ community and gay men in Cambodia.
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Karl & Daan.
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