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For Gay and Transgender, a Struggle for Equality

A Cambodian protester tapes his mouth shut in protest against discrimination of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT), in front of National Assembly, in Phnom Penh, file photo.
A Cambodian protester tapes his mouth shut in protest against discrimination of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT), in front of National Assembly, in Phnom Penh, file photo.

In the past, Chhoeurng Rachana had a boyfriend, but now she loves a woman instead. The 27-year-old says she just realized who she really loved, after trying to figure out her own feelings toward men four years ago.

“Back in 2010, I tried having a boyfriend to see whether I love men or not, but it failed,” she told VOA Khmer in a recent interview. “After we broke up, I started my relationship with girls and then I knew I loved women 100 percent.”

After her realization, Chhoeurng Rachana still had to face her family and friends.

“If I lied to myself, or my family and people around me, I would feel I was living a meaningless life,” she said. “A life that was a lie. When I realize who I really was, I wanted to live my own life.”

Even though more lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Cambodians have opened up publicly, they say they are still facing stigma and discrimination against them by the society, especially by their own family members. Now an increasing number of the community say they want to end discrimination against them, insisting they need the same rights as other people to love whoever they want to.

Chhoeurng Rachana said her family has not accepted her as a lesbian due to the societal pressure.

Like her, Ngo Menghourng, a transgender, said his father and brothers also discriminate against him because he loves men rather than women.

“It hurts that they do not accept who we are,” he said in a recent interview. “They can show themselves as men and can do whatever they like, but when I want to show who I am by putting on make up, sometimes they through my stuff away. “

According to members of the LGBT community, many parents are embarrassed to have sons or daughters who love the same sex or are transgender.

Ly Pisey, a board member of a local LGBT non-governmental organization called Rainbow Community Kampuchea, said young gay or transgender run away from home rather than change their character.

“At other times, they are forced to marry someone their parents believe is appropriate and accepted by general people,” she said, during a Pride Week celebration in Phnom Penh last week.

Pisey, herself a lesbian, said the lack of family acceptance and support has pushed LGBT people into harmful situations, not only among themselves but to the whole society as well.

“As LGBT people, it’s difficult to hide who we love, so when we seek work, we are discriminated against because of our characters,” she said. “So without jobs, where can we go? Some may start engaging in some illegal activities, but we would like to ask whose mistake it is and who will be responsible for the lives of these people.”

Cambodia has no laws to prohibit same-sex relationships. But recognizing people who the same sex as is not widely practiced. Most of the time, this group of people especially transgender, has been made fun of, even in public places, for how they behave or simply how they look.

Chak Sopheap, executive director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights, says LGBT people want the same rights and treatment as other citizens in the country.

“Even though they are just minority, in a democratic country their issues need to be taken into consideration to make sure they can get and use their rights just like any other citizens,” she said.

Some families with children born as LGBT still consider their children abnormal and send them to traditional healers, or Krou Khmer, for treatment to correct their strange characters. This is increasingly become less acceptable, and more people are speaking out about their differences.

“Whether you love someone of the other sex, or the same sex or whether you feel you’re more like a man even if you were born as a woman, or vice versa, doesn’t make you a criminal,” said Marie-Dominique Parent, deputy representative of Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia. “LGBT persons can work, think, write and take care of their family as anyone else.”

Addressing a crowd of LGBT people in a Pride Week celebration in Phnom Penh last week, Seng Vy from Kampong Thom province, whose daughter is a lesbian, said he used to be angry with her and tried to break up her relationships. Now he has changed his mind, he said.

“Society is changing now, so I just let her love whoever she loves,” he said.
“It’s her right.”