Perceptions of sexual orientation and gender identity in Cambodia

Attitudes towards same-sex love and sex vary greatly between different cultures and during different historical periods. However, regardless of differing cultural attitudes, same-sex love and sexual activities occur amongst some members of most societies. All cultures have their own values regarding appropriate and inappropriate relationships and sexual behavior. The prevailing attitudes and perceptions of each culture determine whether such behavior is accepted, stigmatized, or even punished. This section examines perceptions of gender identity and sexual orientation in Cambodia.
Cultural perceptions
As a result of differences in language and culture, the concept of ‘homosexuality’ as understood in the West is not necessarily directly transferable and understandable in the Cambodian context. There is no vocabulary in the Khmer language specifically describing sexual preferences and behavior – there are no words to describe heterosexual, homosexual or bi-sexual people. Cambodians are therefore not accustomed to classifying people in this way.
Rather, the Cambodian understanding of sexuality is derived from concepts of gender, character and personality. As is the case in South-East Asia generally, Cambodians understand gender and sexuality in terms less rigid than the Western categories of “male” and “female”. Gender is generally described using the words srei and pros, meaning “a human being of the female sex” and “a human being of the male sex”. The words gni and chhmol also denote gender, meaning “female” and “male”. However, while this latter pair of words may be used to designate the biological gender of humans in some contexts, they are more generally applied to animals and plants.
A fifth word, khteuy, which is also used to describe gender, has a number of different interpretations. It is defined in the Buddhist Institute Dictionary as a person who has both male and female genitalia.4 However, it also commonly used to describe those who are biologically a man or woman, but display the personality and behavior of the opposite sex.
character), also known as tuon phluon (gentle and docile), are said to possess a personality like that of a woman, whereas charek pros (masculine character), or reng peng (firm and tough) character types exhibit what is considered as a more traditional male personality.
The focus on these character traits and outwardly visible characteristics instead of sexual orientation means that many Cambodians who are homosexual do not identify themselves as such. Even when Cambodians use the word “gay”, they are generally referring to men who outwardly look feminine or, to a lesser degree, females who outwardly appear masculine. Accordingly, individuals may describe themselves as “straight”, despite their homosexual activities. As one Cambodian asserted, “I’m not gay, I just like having sex with men.” As a consequence, activists and researchers often employ the terms “women who have sex with women” (“WSW”) and “men who have sex with men” (“MSM”) to describe homosexual women and men in Cambodia. However, this terminology is also problematic, as discussed below.
Other groups of terminology have also been used to distinguish the personalities and characteristics of MSM. An article by Barbara Earth in Gender and Development journal describes ‘short hairs’ (sak klay), ‘long hairs’ (srei sros – charming girl) and ‘real men’ (boroh pith brakat – masculine man). The terms sak klay and pros saat (handsome man) are sometimes used to distinguish men who dress and identify as men, but may have sex with both men and women. While they might appear more feminine than the norm, their outward characteristics allow them to blend into mainstream society. Few ‘short hairs’ only have sex with men. Usually they are married and their wives do not know that they also engage in homosexual activities. While some may dress up as srei sros (charming girls) for parties, they do not generally cross-dress in public. Some ‘short hairs’ may psychologically be ‘long hairs’ but cut their hair short in order to ‘pass’ in society.
Srei sros or ‘long hairs’ are transgender persons who wear their hair long, identifying, dressing and acting as women. They may take hormones to alter their appearance or, if they can afford it, they may undergo sex change operations. While they might refer to themselves as khteuy, they may consider it insulting or discriminatory to be called khteuy by others, preferring srei sros. Psychologically they consider themselves women and generally only want to be with ‘real men’. It is for this reason that the MSM terminology is inaccurate when applied to srei sros.

It should be emphasized that while such language and terminology helps to explain how concepts of gender and sexuality are understood in Cambodia, the personality and preferences of each individual are unique and may not necessarily fit within such broad categorizations.
Religious perceptions
In 2004, King Father (then King) Norodom Sihanouk expressed his Buddhist view on sexuality, saying: “Gays and lesbians would not exist if God did not create them. As a Buddhist I must have compassion for human beings who are not like me but who torture nobody, kill nobody.”Among Buddhists, there is a general disposition to tolerate homosexuality. Buddhism’s dominant thesis is to ensure that its followers’ actions are free from harm and pointlessness and that they promote good. While sometimes homosexuality is equated to “troubled karma”, Buddhism’s pervasive influence has generally led Cambodians to adopt a “live and let live” or “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to sexual orientation and gender identity. Because the culture is predominantly Buddhist, homosexuality, whilst seen as an oddity, does not attract the kind of aggressive reaction as can be seen in Christian or Muslim cultures.
While the steps of the Eightfold Path to enlightenment speak about sexual activity, there are no homosexual-specific prohibitions. The second step of the Eightfold Path to enlightenment states that “you must renounce all pleasure of the senses”.16 This refers to all forms of sexual activity however, requiring complete celibacy. The fourth step forbids “unlawful sexual acts”. Buddhist commentators usually interpret such acts to refer to “rape, sexual harassment, molestation of children, and unfaithfulness to one’s spouse.” There is no distinction between homosexual or heterosexual behavior – it must be free from harm and it must be carried out with the intention to express affection with respect, and give pleasure to each other. Unlike cultural and societal views, Buddhism itself places no value on marriage or procreation. Marriage and procreation are considered positive if they bring about love and respect, but may be deemed negative if pain or strife is caused. Celibacy is often revered in Buddhism for those hoping to achieve higher levels of enlightenment. No stigma is attached to childless, unmarried people. However, in Cambodia, cultural, social and economic pressures override Buddhist teachings on marriage – family values are incredibly important and pressure is strong for sons and daughters to marry and have children.

Political recognition

In 2004, King Father (then King) Norodom Sihanouk responded to news reports about gay marriage in San Francisco on his website suggesting that as a “liberal democracy”, Cambodia should allow “marriage between man and man…or between woman and woman”. The King continued by expressing his respect for homosexuals and lesbians, saying they are as they are because God loves a “wide range of tastes”. Sihanouk also said that transvestites should be “accepted and well-treated in our national community.”22 Former Minister of Women’s Affairs, Mu Sochua, has also voiced support for transgender Cambodians in the past.

However, in general, politicians have generally been indifferent to the concerns of LGBT people in Cambodia. It seems that rights such as same-sex marriage are unlikely to feature on the government agenda any time soon. In 2010, Cheam Yeap, a lawmaker for the Cambodian People’s Party, was quoted by The Phnom Penh Post explaining why LGBT rights are not a priority of the government: “Throughout time, we have only had the custom of men marrying women…The government must focus on developing the country before it can start thinking about [same-sex marriage] laws.”
Quoted in the same article, Son Chhay, a Sam Rainsy party lawmaker, noted that Cambodia does not have a tradition or custom of acceptance for LGBT individuals as in Western countries and that, as far as he knew, no official requests had been made to the government to legalize gay marriage. He stated, “we may consider [legalizing gay marriage] if we receive any suggestions from gay people.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen has provided mixed messages about support for LGBT Cambodians. In 2007 he publicly disowned his adopted daughter in a speech to graduating students, citing the fact that she was a lesbian. “I have my own problem – my adopted daughter has a wife,” he said. “Now I will ask the court to disown her from my family.” However, in the same speech the Prime Minister urged Cambodians not to follow his example: “I urge parents of gays not to discriminate against them, and do not call them transvestites.”

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