Tuy Reaksmey, a 25-year-old transman, is signing a public declaration of his relationship with Yous Sreynouch, a move supported by the Rainbow Community Kampuchea here at Eden Park Restaurant where two other LGBT couples are also signing relationship declarations.
“We want strong support from families, communities and the government,” Mr Reaksmey says. “We are human – we have love and we have needs like other people. For me, I do not think we have that today”
Cambodia has more than 33,000 LGBT people, including 5,000 couples. Despite the numbers, no law has been enacted to legitimise gay relationships. Because of this, many in the LGBT community are in legal limbo regarding their marital status.
Mr Reaksmey was born female in Kandal province’s Sa’ang district. He says that he never felt like a woman and liked to play dress up in boy’s clothing, behaved like a boy, played with men, and felt attracted to women.
“Since I was a junior, I did not like to wear girl’s clothes and I didn’t like playing with dolls. I liked football and games boys liked to play,” Mr Reaksmey says. “Going to school, I used to leave wearing a skirt and when I got there, I’d change to trousers and back to a skirt again after school.”
His parents, teachers and friends in the community noticed there was something different with Mr Reaksmey from an early age and gave him the freedom to choose the gender of his future partner.
Mr Reaksmey and Ms Sreynouch met each other on social media and the two have been living as husband and wife for the past five years.
“Our parents saw us as homosexuals and they never thought that there was something wrong with it. They said that if I thought it was good and I wasn’t going to harm other people, then I should do it,” Mr Reaksmey says.
Despite the support he has had throughout his entire life, he says that for others in the LGBT community, acceptance may not come as easily.
“They probably don’t have it as easy as my partner and I. They must have faced negative resentment from their family. Some people were even disowned by their parents or were forced to marry people they don’t have feelings for,” he says.
Sot Yun, 60, a transman from Takeo province, lives with his partner, 63-year-old Huy Eang.
Mr Yun describes his experience growing up as tough. His family made him go to school and work the fields in order to help the family make ends-meet.
Growing up, he says that he liked to dress up and do male-leaning choirs at the family farm such as ploughing land, breaking firewood, climbing palm trees and carrying water.
When Mr Yun was in high school, he suffered discrimination and prejudice from students and teachers. He was forbidden to wear trousers during school hours, even though they knew he preferred it.
“My teachers did not let me dress the way I preferred and they asked me to wear a skirt. They got angry and stopped teaching me,” he says. “They said I insulted my teachers because they wanted me to dress like a girl if I wanted to stay in school. So I stopped going to school.”
But his troubles did not cease the moment he went home; at home, he also had to face his parents.
His parents wanted him to marry a man and when Mr Yun refused, he suffered abuse at the hands of his father, leading him to eventually run away.
“They tried to force me, but I resisted because I don’t have feelings for men,” Mr Yun says. “But when they found out that they couldn’t change me, they stopped forcing me and allowed me to behave as a male.”
Everything changed when Mr Yun met Huy Eang in 1976, when he was once again subjected to pressure from her family. Nonetheless, their relationship would develop into a lasting one.
“When our parents found out about us they attempted to separate us from loving each other, but our feelings couldn’t be severed by other people,” Mr Yun says. “So my partner refused to eat or drink until she became ill so her parents would allow us to be together.”
However, acceptance for the couple did not come overnight. Ms Eang’s parents filed a complaint with the local authorities against Mr Yun because the couple had threatened to run away to Battambang province.
Commune authorities then began a reconciliation process between the couple and their families. With time, both families began to accept the relationship and allowed the couple to live together as husband and wife.
Today, the couple has five children and still faces discrimination from local authorities.
Ms Eang, Mr Yun’s partner, says when they declared their relationship to the government, they were given a residential book and family book, just like any other married couple in Cambodia.
But within the family book itself, the couple was not classified as husband and wife. They were listed as brother and sister living together with adopted children.
“Regardless of sexuality, we just want our national ID to match our sexual preference and we also want our family book to be classified as a married couple,” she says.
Pisey Ly, a Rainbow Community Kampuchea coordinator, says that times are changing slowly and she is optimistic about the LGBT community’s future.
“We have seen some changes in the system resulting in public openness and acceptance – it means that we’re not being judged,” Ms Ly says. “We’re no longer being called crazy or sick or classified as people who want to destroy Khmer traditional culture.”
She says that the LGBT community must continue to work to raise awareness in order to have their rights recognised. Ms Ly is urging the community to appeal to the government to provide proper legal marriage and adoption certificates for LGBT people.
Keo Remy, head of the Cambodia Human Rights Committee, says that homosexuality is not a mistake or the beginning of the destruction of traditional culture. Mr Remy says that discrimination should cease and people should be accepted for who they are.
“Romance and love are not wrong – people have feelings and fall in love with men and women. So on behalf of CHRC, I support homosexual people,” he says.
Mr Remy added that despite the law not recognising LGBT couples, the government does not impose penalties like other countries.
“We do not need to prohibit the act. If all communities were to bring it up to the government then laws will be amended,” Mr Remy says.
Back at the restaurant, Mr Reaksmey and Ms Sreynouch are planning for their future. They say they want a house to start a family, along with a total of seven sons and daughters.
The wedding preparations will be a monumental task to accomplish, as the two are struggling financially.
“In the past, people used to say that gays and lesbians would lead to the extinction of the human race by not producing babies, but that’s wrong,” says Mr Reaksmey. “We also want children and there’s now the technology for it – we can get a sperm donor; we can have children like everyone else.”