With preparations underway for this month’s Cambodia LGBT Pride, editor Marissa Carruthers looks at LGBT life in Cambodia. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

Pockets of Phnom Penh are transformed into a sea of colour, rainbow flags hang from walls and tuk tuks, and are draped over the shoulders of revellers. Laughter rings through the air and there’s a real sense of celebration felt across the capital.

This is a familiar sight at Cambodia LGBT Pride. Watching from the sidelines, it’s easy to think the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex) community is openly accepted in Cambodia. However, this is far from the case.

Rape, forced marriage, bullying, police harassment, job discrimination, violence, stigma and inequality remain rampant across the country, and are issues commonly faced by LGBTIs. “There is still a lot of prejudice against LGBTI people, and that is what we are working towards stopping,” says Srorn Srun, activist and founder of CamASEAN, whose work includes promoting equal rights and stamping out injustice.

Despite attitudes slowly changing, there remains a wealth of work to be done, education to be delivered and policies and laws revised to fully embrace this often segregated part of society.

While hard work is carried out across the country throughout the year, the Pride event remains a place where the disparate elements of the community can celebrate their identity with freedom, while educating the public on their plight to be accepted.

“We want to empower people, we want to introduce a sustainable movement, we want the community to be visible to everyone,” says Srorn, who is also a Pride co-organiser.

Coming Out

“It was hard for me to be gay living at home,” says Chuk Sopheap, who hails from a small village on the outskirts of Battambang. “My family would always ask when I’m getting married and having children. It was difficult.”

At 18, Chuk moved to Siem Reap on the hunt for employment, and acceptance. Away from his tightknit community and relatives, the 34-year-old was able to be himself, eventually moving to Phnom Penh, where he trained as a hairdresser before opening his own salon by day and gay bar by night, Space Hair Salon and Bar.

“This gave me a lot of freedom,” says Chuk, who came out to his parents a year ago after their pressure for him to marry and have children became too much. “It’s not easy to be gay in the provinces. It’s small and it’s my homeland. It’s not the city, where everyone can have fun and be themselves. I’m also the oldest of my siblings so everyone looks up to me.”

Pressure from relatives is a common complaint across the board, with young Cambodians often struggling to come out. And even when they do, being urged to change their ways.

“My grandparents still think I will love a girl one day and get married,” says Nix McKool, Pride co-organiser, adding he was fortunate that his father understood once he explained – although his family were the last to know when he told them at the age of 22.

Cambodian culture also traditionally comes coupled with an expectation that the old will be taken care of by younger generations, says Ok Prumsodun, who recently launched the country’s first gay traditional Cambodian dance troupe.

“I meet a lot of young Cambodians who have been with their partners for a long time,” he says. “I ask them when they’re going to live together, and they reply, ‘Never, I want to have a family’. For them, a family is a wife and kids. My Dad used to ask me when I would get married. When I said I’m gay, he asked when I was going to have a family? I realised it wasn’t the marriage, it was the family that was important. He asked me, ‘Who’s going to take care of me when I get old’?”

Finance can play another important role in revealing sexuality. A report by social research agency TNS, released in 2015 by NGO Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK), concluded that money and work status are prioritised over sexual identity in Cambodia. “The economic status or working title of LGBT can change straight people’s … perceptions and reactions – higher income LGBT are less discriminated against by straight people.”

Ok says this is an issue he noticed when recruiting his dancers. “When speaking to them, many said they didn’t want to tell their parents until they could support themselves,” he adds. “For them, being financially secure is very important before they come out.”

It was this financial independence that helped to secure affirmation from Chuk’s family when he came out to them last year. “Everyone kept asking me how old I was. I’d tell them 34 and they’d ask why I’m not married with children. Why am I single? I said, ‘I’m not single; I’m gay. I’m happy, I have my own bar and business in Phnom Penh. I’m a hairdresser, I’m happy in my life,’.”

The Daily Struggle

Discrimination, exclusion from families, harassment and legal challenges were ranked the top four problems faced by the LGBT community in the TNS report.

While life for the LGBT population may seem easier in cities than the countryside, it is still tough. Reports of forced marriages, discrimination at work and school, bullying from peers and police harassment are rampant throughout the Kingdom.

“Discrimination still happens in urban areas, it’s not just rural areas,” says Ung Polin, community mobilisation and networking adviser for UNAIDS, which provides coordination and technical assistance to LGBTI organisations. “Even though LGBTI people are increasingly coming out as themselves and becoming more visible compared to in the past, the issues of stigma and discrimination are still very much there.”

Un Borin, 26, says victimisation from peers in Phnom Penh is a daily challenge. “When I go out with my friends to eat something, we get a lot of bad words from people around us. It makes me angry but I don’t talk back to them so we often have to move somewhere else because we don’t want to have problems,” says Un.

These prejudices from wider society can also lead to low self-esteem. “Often the most difficult thing for gay men is they feel they lose their value,” says Dirk de Graaff, owner of gay-friendly Rambutan resorts in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and Pride co-organiser, recalling it took time to convince a star employee, who was gay, to accept a promotion to manager because he didn’t realise his worth.

Forced marriage is common in rural and urban areas, says Srorn, especially for women pressurised by their parents. They will pursue a suitable spouse. “This can be followed by years of rape and abuse from their husbands,” he adds.

However, this is not an exclusively female occurrence. McKool says one of the “saddest things” was when a friend opened up about his sexuality to his family, who ordered him to get married. “And he did,” he adds.

Discrimination in the workplace is not unusual, with many organisations refusing to hire people based on their sexuality – this is even more rife within the transgender community, with some garment factories recently stipulating they will not recruit from this segment of society, according to Srorn.

Bullying can be endemic in schools, from both pupils and teachers. Also, there is a lack of health services aimed specifically at the transgender community, who often use hormones with devastating effects.

“Many don’t have anywhere to go so they’ll listen to advice passed down from friends of friends,” says Srorn, adding he regularly comes across cases where people have disfigured themselves from injecting unknown substances being sold as hormones.

In 2013, two people died in a Phnom Penh hospital seven hours after injecting what they thought were hormones into their chest. Instead it was oil from a tree that caused a lethal reaction.

Legal protection is another area that needs to be addressed, with the community regularly victimised, especially in the provinces. “We hear many stories from people, mostly transgender, who are arrested for human trafficking or drugs just because of the way they look,” says Srorn, adding that transgender women in prison are particularly susceptible to rape.

Colourful Future

While these issues are still deeply entrenched in society, attitudes are changing in both the cities and provinces, thanks to the tireless work carried out by organisations such as CamASEAN, RoCK, UNAIDS and other organisations working with LGBTI community.

CamASEAN is currently running a series of projects across all 25 provinces. This includes an exhibition of LGBTI partners, including a transgender couple who have been together since 1949. These will be displayed in five villages across three rural communes. “We want to show communities that LGBTI couples are just the same as straight ones,” says Srorn.

Advocacy work has also gained momentum in recent years, with six ministries meeting with organisations and making changes.

After two years of lobbying from activist groups, such as CamASEAN, in 2015, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs included the LBT community in its national action plan to prevent violence against women, and the Ministry of Health has agreed to address common issues faced by the community, such as catering towards the transgender population and psychological problems that can arise.

Activists have also met with the Ministry of Interior to discuss the problem of police harassment, and the Ministry of Labour is looking at ways to encourage employers to be more inclusive. While the Ministry of Education has pledged to start teaching sex education in school, including one session tackling SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity), from 2018.

“These are small changes but they’re something,” says Srorn, who also runs workshops with the local media, who he says can often be dismissive of the community in their reporting. “This is positive and steps in the right direction.”

Other projects that have helped bring the community together is a series of Facebook groups launched by CamASEAN: MyVoiceMyStory, which invites people to share their stories through Facebook Live on the page, and LGBT and Counselling, which offers support and a forum for people to share concerns and seek advice.

“These are very popular,” says Pheung Sophea, who works with minority and marginalised groups for CamASEAN. “It makes others see they are not alone, and even if they are in remote areas, they have a community to talk to.”

Ung agrees that perception is changing across the country – something he believes is down to mobilising communities. “LGBTI groups visit communities and talk to them to help people understand, they offer education about the issues. There is also  increasingly information available through the TV and media programmes supported by civil society organisations and online discussing the issues, as well as campaigns and events organised in the community. All of these together would help society to better understand this is not a disease, it’s nature.”

I Am What I Am

Another major stepping stone on the road to ultimate acceptance is this month’s Cambodia LGBT Pride.

“Pride brings people together to discuss issues, specifically raising wider awareness around LGBT,” says Ung. “It’s a week when LGBT people can come together to celebrate and advocate their issues and concerns, including rights. The work related to LGBT is done continuously throughout the year, not just within the week, but Pride is a time that people, in particular LGBT people and their allies, come together to collectively reinforce  the message and show unity.”

Opening with an event that sees organisations unite in a community setting on May 12, the main programme launches on May 17 – International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia – and takes in six days of workshops, seminars, parties, screenings and other events.

Phnom Penh’s top LGBT spots, such as Rambutan Resort, Arthur & Paul, Space Hair Salon, Valentinos, Blue Chilli and Heart of Darkness, will host special events, such as pool parties, barbecues, cabaret shows and dance nights. Street parties will take over the city and one man will be crowned Mr Gay Cambodia.

And the Amazingly Fabulous Tuk Tuk Race will make a return on May 20. Following on from its huge success last year, the scavenger hunt will see teams of four to five people solve a series of clues, hunt for hidden locations and landmarks and compete to earn the most points, with prizes up for grabs along the way. The route takes in a series of Pride sites.

“At last year’s Pride, there were many people, and straight people too,” says Chuk. “There were many families that joined the tuk tuk ride, and they knew it was a gay thing. This shows there is more acceptance and I think Pride helps this. The future can only get better.”

For more information on Cambodia LGBT Pride, visit them on Facebook.