Imagine that you are madly in love with someone who you know will make you happy for the rest of your life. Now imagine that you can’t marry them because the country you live in won’t allow it. This scenario is unlikely to play out for most heterosexual people. But for homosexuals in Cambodia, as in much of the rest of the world, it is a reality that must be faced when they want to commit to their loved one.
In the last decade, gay marriage – the legal union of two members of the same sex – has become a hotly contested topic in many Western countries, where political campaigns, lobbying and public demonstrations have been launched by people on each side of the debate.
Gay-rights advocates have made progress in countries such as the Netherlands, the first country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2001, and Spain, the only country where same-sex marriage is recognised under the same law as “traditional” marriage.
But Cambodia can be listed along with many other socially conservative states where the possibility of legalising gay marriage has never been seriously considered by politicians or a majority of the people. “Throughout time, we have only had the custom of men marrying women,” said Cheam Yeap, a lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. “The government must focus on developing the country before it can start thinking about [same-sex marriage] laws.”
Although his organisation supports human rights in Cambodia, Am Samath, a monitoring supervisor with the rights group Licadho, agreed that now may not be the time for such a drastic change to the country’s social structure. “The law can cause more discrimination and conflict in society,” he said, explaining that Cambodia is a developing country; so change must happen “step by step”.
Although legally recognised gay marriage may not be a reality in present-day Cambodia, it hasn’t stopped gay-rights advocates from making their opinions heard.
One of the most notable proponents of gay rights in the Kingdom is Popy, a famous gay entertainer who has gained widespread notoriety for her appearances on TV variety shows.
“We are living in a democratic society. We have the right to marry to someone we love unless we spoil or damage society,” she told Lift. “It is a human rights issue. Gay people can work and do everything else. We should have the right to get married.”
Even King Father Norodom Sihanouk, when nearing the end of his reign in 2004, announced that he thought same-sex marriages should be allowed in the Kingdom. He said that, as a liberal democracy, “this kingdom should allow, if they wish, marriage between man and man or between woman and woman,” adding that “[God loves] a wide range of tastes”.
Although discussion of gay marriage has yet to enter Cambodia’s political arena in a significant way, the topic of same-sex relationships was spotlighted by the 2009 movie Who Am I?, written and directed by Phoan Phuong Bopha and shown on CTN, the country’s most-watched TV station, dozens of times.
The movie broke ground as the first Cambodian-made film to depict a homosexual relationship, and although many of the scenes were overly stereotypical and dramatic, one reality that was exposed is that it is family, not the government, who usually stand in the way of long-lasting same-sex relationships.
University students who have been exposed to progressive ideas about homosexuality through gender studies classes and the internet, tend to have a more liberal view of marriage.
Thong Chanthim, 22, a senior at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, said that he strongly supports legalising gay marriage because theoretically, the majority of Cambodians follow and practice Buddhism, and therefore offering equal rights to gay people will help them live openly and reduce the amount of discrimination they face.
“It is not different from a woman loving a man,” said Ngoun Noramy, a 20-year-old student in business management at the University of Cambodia.
Son Chhay, an opposition Sam Rainsy party lawmaker, told Lift that Cambodia does not have a tradition or custom of acceptance like Western countries and, as far as he knew, no official claims have been made to the government to legalise gay marriage. “We may consider it if we receive any suggestions from gay people,” he said.
Although gay marriage may not be on the agenda of Cambodia’s political parties, Miech Ponn, adviser to Cambodia’s Buddhist Institute, suggested that it doesn’t really matter.
“If people dislike the law, they can ignore it,” he said. “Or they can force themselves to accept it.”
The national men who have sex with men (MSM) network coordinator, Leng Monyneath, supports legalising gay marriage. But he admitted that the movement needs to be made slowly, and any communication with the National Assembly needs to be well thought out, as it could risk destroying the progress made by MSM groups and other advocate organisations.
“Homosexuality has existed in Khmer society for a long time, but they did not dare to live openly,” he said. “Now when we advocate for them, they are not afraid to show to the public who they are.”