Same-sex relationship may not be outlawed in Cambodia, but advocates say the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities are not protected against high rates of emotional, sexual and physical abuse.
Rights campaigners want the government to take a more active role by introducing legislation that will protect LGBT Cambodians. There are indications that the government might be prepared to listen, especially with a prominent official, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, presiding over a National LGBTI Dialogue Consultation this month.
A 2014 study by the United States Agency for International Development found that like in other countries in Southeast Asia, LGBT Cambodians face discrimination and emotional, sexual and physical abuse. Despite a level of cultural acceptance and legal tolerance of same-sex relationship, it found, “laws and policies are silent on LGBT people.”
Speaking to VOA Khmer at the dialogue on Feb. 16, Srun Srorn—the founder of the Phnom Penh-based group CamASEAN Youth’s Future who initiated the first LGBT rights campaign in Cambodia in 2006—said people were often at risk of abuse from their own family, friends and colleagues.
“Our goal is to make the voice of LGBT people heard, because they have been abused in many forms, physically and emotionally. And we seek active interventions from all stakeholders, including the government,” said Srun.
LGBT people may miss out on schooling opportunities due to bullying from classmates, as well as teachers. They may also face serious discrimination in the workplace.
Srun noted that Cambodia is far more tolerant of same-sex relationships than other countries in the region. In Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and parts of Indonesia it is strictly illegal to have sex with someone of the same gender.
But Theravada Buddhism, Cambodia’s dominant religion, does not distinguish between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Sixty-five percent of male respondents in a 2012 nationwide survey expressed their support for laws that protect the rights of LGBT people in Cambodia.
However, Cambodian LGBT people, and their families, also experience shame, fear and guilt.
According to the same survey, 63 per cent of male respondents believed having a homosexual son would bring shame to the family. Most LGBT people report that they feel that being Kteuy—the Khmer word for people who do not identify as either female or male—is “wrong.” They said they are “shameful and fearful” and should do their best to hide their sexual orientation.
Srun said that more support for LGBT activism—from nongovernmental organizations and the government—was pledged at the National LGBTI Dialogue Consultation.
“We have the Minister of Information pledging a two-hour radio program reserved for our LGBT program, and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs already incorporated rights to same-sex relationships in its second National Action Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women 2014-2018,” he said.
Srun, who has been advocating for LGBT rights in Cambodia for over a decade, told VOA Khmer that the prospect of drafting and adopting laws that would protect LGBT people from discrimination was possible in the next few years. There could also soon be recognition for gay marriage, he added, which would be a first in Southeast Asia.
“We already heard that the Ministry of Interior is looking at the possibility to push for same-sex marriage legislation, but that might take a few more years,” he said. “I’m optimistic that this would happen eventually.”