Tabitha Payne visits a village in Prey Veng Province which is home to aging trans couples.
It’s 5:45 in the morning, the sun is just rising over the rice paddies, and a loudspeaker on the skinny, reddish dirt road that runs through Angkrong, Cambodia has already begun blaring traditional Khmer music at top volume. It is a village announcement: today, January 5, at 8am, the commune council, district governors, local monks, and all members of the town are invited to attend a pro-LGBT community event to celebrate the surprising amount of LGBT people living in the agrarian hamlet of an estimated 1,000 people.
Srun Srorn, Cambodia’s prominent LGBT activist who first visited the village in 2010, says he’s never seen anything like it. Usually, according to Srun and Pheung Sophea, both activists with the grassroots local LGBT group, CamASEAN Youth’s Future, LGBT couples in rural areas are rare, especially older ones, and when they do exist, they live villages apart.
Angkrong, a village in Prey Veng Province in Cambodia’s southeast corner, has been home to five couples over the age of 40, two young couples who recently emigrated, another middle-aged couple where one of the partners, a transgender man, passed away just last year, and a transgender monk. All are pairings of transgender men and cisgender women (“cisgender” meaning non-transgender). The couples say they are accepted by the community and local government officials, and claim not to experience discrimination from their neighbours. They refer to one another as husband and wife, irrespective of the fact that gay marriage is not recognised in Cambodian Family Law. Also remarkable is that the couples are all friends who have known each other for years.
According to Srun, the number of transgender people and their partners is so high here because many of the couples fear leaving. Other communities might ostracise them.
The older couples, who have raised adopted children and maintained respectable, stable livelihoods here, have gained community respect over time. This is remarkable in a nation where stereotypes cast LGBT people as lazy, promiscuous, and unreliable, and where most LGBT people are young and live in urban areas. For these couples, leaving would mean not only abandoning friends who share their experience but also a community that reveres them as elders, invites them as respected guests to bless new marriages and homes, and helps them with farming and housework as they grow older. Another reason there might be so many couples here is simply that, because some people were already out, others felt comfortable coming out themselves.
Pen Noul, 53, for instance, describes having known the trans man and his partner a couple houses down the street – Khiev Siam, 63, and Ouk Lay, 73, who have been together since 1982 – ever since she was young. Ouk is Pen’s second cousin. When Pen started living with her trans partner, Chhun Nhoeng, 52, in 1990, she already knew that couples like this can and do exist. Today, she is a commune council member and attends CamASEAN and UN workshops on LGBT rights in Phnom Penh, which her husband drives her to every time. This was how she became connected with activists like Srun and Pheung.
Today, Pen hosts the community gathering at her house, managing an outdoor kitchen of a dozen people that is cooking up a feast of rice noodles and river fish for whoever shows up. Her husband Chhun, a lively, hardworking driver, barber, fisherman, construction worker, farmer, and vocational teacher to 30 students, appears to be endlessly, cheerfully sweeping out the dust that bare feet keep dragging into their home, where the festivities are taking place.
“If my mother could see our house today, she would be happy,” says Pen. Just five years ago, her house was no more than a wooden shack. Now it is a tiled cement home with an accompanying outhouse: a symbol of stability. Out back is a small rice paddy where the pair grow enough to eat and keep some cattle and chicken. Out front is Chhun’s barber shop, a room-sized wooden structure with a reclining chair, and a small store where they sell snacks, beverages, and toiletries. The pair have three adopted children from an extended family. The birth mother of two of the children suffers from mental illness. Chhun and Pen stepped in when the mother became unable to care for them.
The happy event was attended by over 85 families, who brought bananas or small tithes for the accompanying Buddhist ceremony overseen by a local monk, Mal Chorn, who also goes by Chhov or “Grandpa”.
For the first time, Mal, 74, shared a photograph of herself when she was a young dancer, actress, and singer in the late 1950s, living as a transgender woman in Kampong Cham province.
When she was 20, however, her mother forced her to become a monk and perform as a man, which she has been doing ever since. She has kept the photograph in memory of who she really is, even hiding it in a tree during the Khmer Rouge regime. The 1975–1979 communist group, also known as the Red Khmer, forced the population to become agricultural labourers under breakneck conditions. Some 1–3 million Cambodians died from torture, summary executions, starvation, and exhaustion – almost a quarter of the population.
Because religion was illegal under the regime, Mal was forced to stop being a monk. In 1990, she retrieved and rehabilitated the weathered photograph from the same tree where she left it. Community members responded positively to the keepsake, calling the joyful, popular, Red Bull-loving Ajar (meaning priest) “beautiful”.
In Cambodia, LGBT people face disproportionate levels of street harassment, discrimination at work and school and rape. A 2017 report by Rainbow Community of Kampuchea found 64 percent of LGBT people experience ostracisation from family, the traditional safety net in a developing country lacking in state protections.
Lesbians, for example, face higher levels of domestic violence than straight women. Eighty percent of LGBT youth experience depression, according to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights in 2016. Many LGBT people are forced by family to enter into a “straight” marriage regardless, like Angkrong’s Rat Yat, 64, who knew he was a transgender man since he was 15. His parents forced him to become the wife of another 15 year-old.
“In that time, you couldn’t reject your parents,” says Rat. After his husband passed away at 30, Rat cut his long hair and began living as a man. When his neighbour, Soy Lat, 59, was widowed as well, they began spending more time together. They have been together now for five years. Rat’s three children and Soy’s seven children are accepting of the relationship. Remarkably, they even performed the traditional duties as parents in Lat’s son’s wedding, a role customarily reserved for cisgender pairings.
Somehow, at the same time, Cambodia is also known for a mild culture of tolerance for people who “sralonh doch knea,” or “love the same” – at least in comparison to other nations.
Buddhism, which 95 percent of Cambodians adhere to, lacks a holy text that condemns homosexuality. Prime Minister Hun Sen, has a lesbian adopted daughter. The beloved late King Norodom Sihanouk, was in favour of legalising gay marriage.
There is growing acceptance of LGBT people amongst Cambodians under 30, who make up 65 percent of the population. Under Srun, CamASEAN has succeeded in lobbying for classes in public schools on LGBT issues and non-discrimination.
Today, CamASEAN is still leading a fight for marriage equality, around which they are organising a #FreedomToLove campaign this Valentine’s Day.