HIV battle still flares

An HIV-positive family sits outside their home in Tuol Sambo village, a community for people living with HIV, last year. HENG CHIVOAN

Re-printed from http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/hiv-battle-still-flares

Fri, 20 September 2013
Amelia Woodside

Despite massive reductions in HIV infection rates over the past two decades, HIV-positive Cambodians continue to face a wide array of non-medical challenges, a report released yesterday says.

Written by NGOs, aid agencies and the government, the report says that vulnerable groups, including those who are “stigmatized, marginalised and discriminated against and thus [facing] additional socioeconomic challenges”, are in need of support.

Marie-Odile Emond, UNAIDS country coordinator, included transgendered Cambodians as among high-risk groups requiring increased attention in the nation’s battle against the disease, during opening remarks at the launch yesterday morning.

“While national HIV prevalence has dropped to 0.7 per cent, increased attention is needed among entertainment workers, men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, and transgender Cambodians with HIV/AIDS,” she said.

Cambodia’s small and primarily urban community of more than 1,500 transgendered HIV sufferers, meanwhile, face serious social stigma even among the HIV/AIDS community.

Living as a transgender Cambodian with HIV/AIDs is an existence that could easily be solely defined by social marginalisation, according to Srorn Srun, facilitator for LGBT advocacy group Rainbow Community Kampuchea.

“In June, two HIV-positive transgender Cambodians were arrested for ‘public disorder’ by commune safety police, but they didn’t tell police they were positive, because they were worried police would not keep their status private,” Srun said in an email yesterday.

Transgendered Cambodians are doubly exposed to social stigmatisation if they are HIV-positive, Srun said, emphasising the importance of Cambodia’s adoption of HIV-sensitive social protection.

Cambodia’s reliance on foreign aid to mitigate the spread of HIV was also a theme in the opening remarks made by Dr Kao Try, vice-chair of the National AIDS Authority, who said without the funding provided by the Global Fund, progress could spiral backwards unless more sustainable solutions are explored.


Sou Sotheavy: An LGBTI Activist Who Never Gives Up

As the David Kato Vision & Voice Award begins to celebrate its third year, we continue to receive hundreds of nominations of phenomenal activists for LGBTI rights around the world. With the announcement of this 2014 winner coming up on February 14th at the renowned Teddy Awards in Berlin, we are honored to introduce you to the 5 incredible people who have been shortlisted for this year’s award.

Last week we started this series with Mac-Darling Cobbinah of Ghana, and this week we are thrilled to present Sou Sotheavy of Cambodia. Born in 1940 in Takeo Province, Sotheavy survived the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge regime to become a leading figure in Cambodia’s movement for LGBTI rights. Now 74 years old, she continues to travel to the provinces to support fledgling LGBTI organizations, and she has said that she will continue to work for LGBTI rights for as long as she can walk.

It was in 1999 – Cambodia had just overcome thirty years of civil war – when Sou Sotheavy began to realize that although many civil society organizations were being founded in the newly established setting of peace and stability none of them supported LGBTI people. “Discrimination against LGBTI and sex workers was simply ignored”, says Sotheavy recalling her own background of being born as a man but identifying herself as a woman. When her family discovered her transgender orientation she was physically and emotionally abused until, at the age of 14, her mother chased her out of her home saying that “You are no longer my son.”

Sotheavy remembers clearly how lonely and abandoned she felt when she sought refuge in a pagoda which took her in. Later on, when she found her place among a group of LGBTI in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh, she realized how important support networks are. Even in her darkest hours during the rule of the Khmer Rouge from April 1975 to January 1979, an ultra-communist oppressive regime which aimed to wipe out any person they deemed to fall outside of the norm, she was able to survive with the help of other LGBTI. It was in 1999 that Sotheavy made the decision to commit her life to the fight for LGBTI who suffered like she did.

Her first initiative was to create LGBTI support groups in Phnom Penh and other provinces. Using her network of LGBTI friends in various communities, Sotheavy identified LGBTI people in five different provinces and brought them together to learn about their rights, violence against LGBTI, and health issues. In each group, a team leader was designated as focal person to receive training from Sotheavy to continue outreach and awareness-raising activities in their communities. Team leaders were assigned to become the first point of contact for emergencies or other cases where members of the LGBTI support group were in need of assistance.

Not long after, the support groups became active on their first case. In 1999, two LGBTI sex workers were killed by their clients for unknown reasons. Alerted by the support group, Sotheavy filed a complaint to the police on the victims’ behalf, who had no support from their families. However, despite several meetings with the police, no investigation has been conducted to this day, even though at each meeting the police promised to take action. In the following years, 16 other LGBTI sex workers were killed by their clients without being held accountable for their crimes.

But Sotheavy remains undaunted. Despite the challenges, her work has achieved my victories as well. Sotheavy still remembers the moment her work first made a positive difference, back in 2000 when she first began. That year, Ouk Chanara was a young boy of 16 from a province bordering Phnom Penh who decided to reveal to his parents that he was homosexual. Shortly after, Sotheavy was called by the support group to facilitate a dialogue between Ouk Chanara and his parents, who were about to chase him out of their home. With her own story in mind, Sotheavy met with the entire family for a series of consultation sessions during which she tried to foster their acceptance and understanding.

“It was a challenge to get through to the family. They were not open to any discussion in the beginning. They felt ashamed that their son behaved like this,” Sotheavy recalls. Today, Ouk Chanara has a good relationship with his parents. He was never chased out of their home and can freely live according to his sexual orientation.

Since then, Sotheavy has continued to pursue her vision of a world where LGBTI people no longer suffer discrimination and can exercise their rights like any other citizen. At present, she is working on expanding the LGBTI support groups to other provinces that have not been covered thus far. Her goal is to establish such groups in all provinces of Cambodia so that any LGBTI person can seek assistance within their own community. At the same time, Sotheavy continues to hold consultation meetings with LGBTI and their families to help restore their relationships. “The team leaders do not dare to intervene in affairs of their community members, so they call me,” explains Sotheavy. Since the beginning of this year, she has been working with four different families.

Discrimination and abuse do not only originate from the family but also from the broader community. Sotheavy’s work therefore includes outreach and awareness-raising visits where she and team leaders go from house to house in a single village to share information about LGBTI rights and call on the villagers to stop anti-LGBT discrimination and violence. Recently, these efforts were broadened through open forums where members of the community, local authority, police, and LGBTI support groups came together to listen to the testimonies of LGBTI people and discuss solutions for their problems. Such open forums were held in three different provinces with around 500 participants each. “Everyone was interested to hear about the issues that LGBTI face on a daily basis. To me it was great to see and feel the support of so many people,” recalls Sotheavy.

When asked about where she finds her strength to continue her work, Sotheavy describes the story of Cindy, a transgender woman who also called upon Sotheavy for a family consultation meeting. Despite Sotheavy’s efforts, the family asked Cindy to leave their home. Cindy made her own way and became a very successful make-up artist. Today, Cindy is the president of a foundation which provides financial support for health services or other needs of LGBTI people. “Even sometimes when we think we have failed, this work can still make a difference. That’s why I never give up.”
Posted by MSMGF Secretariat at 11:55 AM


UN General Secreteriat and Prime Minister Hun Sen Speech to Support LGBT community

Hi friends, I just wanted to share with you all the speech made by the UN Secretary-general on December 11. I have also underlined a couple of sentences in his speech  that are also in our research findings on the Social Exclusion of LGBT, which we hope to publish and disseminate once the remainder of the grant is released.   I was also pleased to read in the local news about the supportive remarks made by Prime Minister Hun Sen on non-discrimination of LGBT people.  It is a positive development for LGBT in Cambodia.

Remarks to special event on “Leadership in the Fight against Homophobia”
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UN Headquarters, 11 December 2012

“Thank you all for coming to this remarkable meeting. What a meaningful way to commemorate Human Rights Day. I welcome all of the activists, supporters and others here today.

The very first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

All human beings – not some, not most, but all.

No one gets to decide who is entitled to human rights and who is not.

The United Nations has a proud record of combating racism, promoting gender equality, protecting children and breaking down barriers facing persons with disabilities.

We have a long way to go in all of these areas. But we are turning the tide on discrimination in both law and practice. Slowly, some old prejudices have started to dissolve.

Yet others remain in place, with horrendous consequences.

Around the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are targeted, assaulted and sometimes killed. Children and teens are taunted by their peers, beaten and bullied, pushed out of school, disowned by their own families, forced into marriage … and, in the worst cases, driven to suicide.

LGBT people suffer discrimination because of their sexual orientation and gender identity at work, at clinics and hospitals, and in schools – the very places that should protect them.

More than 76 countries still criminalize homosexuality.

I am pained by this injustice. I am here to again denounce violence and demand action for true equality.

Let me say this loud and clear: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are entitled to the same rights as everyone else. They, too, are born free and equal. I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in their struggle for human rights.

I am proud that as Secretary-General I have a global platform to highlight the need to end violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The United Nations should lead by example. I recently reiterated to all senior managers that discrimination against staff on the basis of sexual orientation will not be tolerated. I have also asked that the UN’s rules and policies be examined to ensure that the rights of our LGBT staff are protected.

More and more governments are working to tackle homophobia. Last year, the Human Rights Council adopted the first UN resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, which expressed “grave concern” at violence and discrimination against LGBT people.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights published the first UN report dedicated to the problem, which was then debated at the Human Rights Council, marking another UN first.

The past decade has seen far-reaching reforms in Europe, the Americas and a number of Asian and African countries … and extraordinary shifts in social attitudes in many parts of the world.

I applaud Argentina for introducing some of the most progressive legislation in the world on same-sex partnerships and gender recognition. I am pleased that we are joined today by Blas Radi, from Argentina, who helped drive the gender identity law adopted there earlier this year.

I also welcome Olena Shevchenko who leads an important human rights effort in Ukraine.

In a number of countries, including Ukraine, draft laws have been proposed that would criminalize public discussion of homosexuality – potentially making meetings such as this one illegal. I deplore these kinds of measures wherever they are introduced. They threaten basic rights, feed stigma and lead to more abuse.

We are also pleased to have Gift Trapence, a prominent human rights defender from Malawi. When I visited Malawi in 2010, two young men had just been sentenced to 14 years of hard labour for the so-called “crime” of celebrating their wedding. At my request, the then President Bingu wa Mutharika pardoned them, on the very day when I asked him, but he defended criminal sanctions. Now under the new leadership of Her Excellency President Joyce Banda, Malawi is weighing possible changes in the law. I hope Malawians take the opportunity to turn a page.

Distinguished friends,
We must all speak out against homophobia, especially those who are considered leaders in society as well as others in the public eye.

Let me say a big Bienvenido to pop sensation Ricky Martin. Muchas Gracias! You are a wonderful role model for LGBT youth and for all people. Thank you.

I am again honoured to share the stage with Yvonne Chaka Chaka – a global superstar and a champion of development, including as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and Roll Back Malaria. Thank you very much.

Yvonne, you are known as the Princess of Africa. Today, you are our Queen of Equality.

Our guests – and you here today – have helped to open a door. We cannot let it close.

It is an outrage that in our modern world, so many countries continue to criminalize people simply for loving another human being of the same sex. In many cases, these laws are not home-grown. They were inherited from former colonial powers.

Laws rooted in 19th century prejudices are fuelling 21st century hate. In other cases new discriminatory laws are being introduced.

These laws must go. We must replace them with laws that provide adequate protection against discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

This is not optional. It is a State obligation, based on the principle of non-discrimination – a fundamental tenet of international human rights law.

We also need a broad public education effort to spread understanding and counter fear.

When I meet with leaders from around the world I raise my voice for equality for LGBT people.

Many leaders say they wish they could do more. But they point to public opinion as a barrier to progress.

I understand it can be difficult to stand up to public opinion. But just because a majority might disapprove of certain individuals does not entitle the State to withhold their basic rights.

Democracy is more than majority rule. It requires defending vulnerable minorities from hostile majorities. It thrives on diversity. Governments have a duty to fight prejudice, not fuel it.

I am deeply grateful to the cross-regional LGBT core group of Member States for bringing us together. I hope many other countries will join you.

You and I and people of conscience everywhere must keep pushing until we realize the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for all people. The freedom, dignity and equal rights that all people are born with – must be a living reality each and every day of their lives.

Thank you very much.” (Quoted by Vic)

“Celebration of LGBT Couples and Families”

IHRD 2012 Logo

Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK)
International Human Rights Day 2012-
“Celebration of LGBT Couples and Families”

Background and general activities of RoCK:

RoCK is a Cambodian LGBT rights group. It was formed after the successful Cambodia Pride Week 2009 (10-17th May) when LGBT Pride volunteers wanted to continue working to improve the lives of LGBT people in Cambodia. A week-long Pride involving various events (workshops, film festival, art exhibition, media coverage, social events) was an empowering experience for Cambodian LGBT as they had opportunities to share their experiences and bring more visibility to their lives and their concerns. They felt a stronger sense of community and wished to continue to work together to bring more understanding and visibility of LGBT people to Cambodian society. Since then, RoCK has successfully organized and annual LGBT Pride Week and this year 2012, organized the first-ever ASEAN LGBT Pride Week in Cambodia.

As well as organizing the annual Pride Festival every May, RoCK works all year round to promote LGBT rights awareness and advocacy. It does this by aiming certain activities at general community and society, and certain activities at internal movement building among LGBT-
• RoCKers carry out multiple awareness session for university students of Gender Studies in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang;
• also with other organizations as requested- Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), KHANA, British Embassy and others;
• RoCK harnesses the power of the arts to increase visibility and understanding through commissioning short films and documentaries, art exhibitions, music and songs;
• RoCK carries out research on LGBT experiences;
• RoCK takes on cases of rights abuses of LGBT to ensure that services are made available and problems are solved;
• RoCK engages in community-organising within the LGBT community promoting volunteerism and self-help as the most powerful and sustainable way to bring about change- “be the change you wish to see!”
• RoCK organizes SOGI workshops for its growing membership around the country to further deepen the LGBT community’s understanding and articulation of their identity

Focus and progamme of IHRD 2012

One of the biggest causes of the discrimination and marginalization experienced by the LGBT community is the accusation that homosexual love is unnatural, abnormal and not belonging to Cambodian culture rather coming to influence young people from exposure to foreign cultures, music and fashions. The deep discrimination against LGBT leads to family rejection of LGBT sons and daughters and fear of this rejection is the biggest factor preventing LGBT people from their freedom of expression and to be who they are. Coming out of the closet comes with huge risks if it leads to one being abandoned or rejected by one’s family, the primary social fabric of life in Cambodia. Addressing this discrimination and strengthening support mechanisms for LGBT people continues to be the core work of RoCK and is the focus of IHRD 2012.

IHRD will focus on the important issue of family acceptance during IHRD this year. There will be a 2-day programme featuring:
1. Our first ever national gathering of LGBT couples and their family members who accept them. We hope this will be a step on the way to founding a PFLAG group in Cambodia- Parents and Friends of Lesbian And Gay. During ASEAN Pride Week we met with the Vietnam PFLAG group and saw it is possible!
2. RoCK will launch its Pride DVD from the previous May on IHRD- our ASEAN LGBT Pride DVD.
3. RoCK will also present the findings of our collaborative research on the exclusion of LGBT from government social protection policy.
4. RoCK will exhibit its photo-book art piece “Cambodian LGBT Lives” featuring LGBT people with family who accept them.

RoCK will invite 100 RoCKers form the provinces for the 2-day programme and RoCKers from Phnom Penh as well as target groups of KANHNHA, a support organization for HIV+ transgender and MSM with whom RoCK is collaborating.

Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), # 3-4 Street 339, Tuol Kork, Sangkat Boueng Kak 1, Khan Tuol Kork.
Tel: Srorn 092 300 006 or 093 600 234 or Bong Sitha 089 69 13 03 or Phanut 069 38 78 94

Sunday-Monday 9-10th December 2012

Celebrating Pride… Beyond the White House

By Jessica Stern and Peter Dunne

On June 15, as U.S. President Barack Obama hosted a reception at the White House to mark Pride Month, the now annual celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) lives across the United States, there was much to contemplate about U.S. foreign policy and LGBT human rights.

While many celebrated advances made in the U.S. over the past year, this annual White House reception is an opportunity to recognize the efforts the Obama administration has made to promote LGBT human rights beyond U.S. borders. In December 2010 U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice spearheaded efforts to ensure that sexual orientation would remain part of a resolution condemning extrajudicial killings. Last December Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke movingly at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva of how “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.” And President Obama the same day issued an executive memorandum calling upon U.S. diplomats to make LGBT human rights a priority in American foreign policy.

President Obama has gone further than any of his predecessors in advocating protections for individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity, creating important opportunities for activists both at home and abroad. In so doing he has also raised significant questions. While many countries still see homosexuality as a “Western import,” how can the U.S. government support nascent LGBT movements internationally without compromising the political credibility of those involved?

In attempting to assist LGBT advocates globally, the Obama administration must keep in mind the first principle of international development, as noted by British researcher Stephen Wood: “[Listen] to the lived experience of those you are campaigning to support.” Around the world, even in the most homophobic and transphobic countries, LGBT individuals and advocates exist. These individuals know their environment and are best placed to effect real change at the local level.

To improve the lives of LGBT people outside the United States, President Obama and his administration must first engage with people where they are and seek to understand the reality of their daily lives. They must seek to acknowledge, as Secretary Clinton did before the Human Rights Council, that LGBT advocates in the Global South have agency and that they are already formulating diverse, nuanced strategies to enforce their own rights. Rather than dictating a prepackaged governmental agenda or engaging in government-to-government negotiations, the Obama administration should work to understand how it could offer assistance within the framework of existing community action. As Trinidadian advocate Colin Robinson has written, it is those who “live in, understand and engage daily with the states and the localities we wish to change must form the pivot around which any international advocacy strategy or emancipatory movement is built.”

In cases where domestic advocates welcome and encourage the participation of the U.S. government, it may well be appropriate for the Obama administration, led by local partners, to play an active role in seeking LGBT equality at the national level. In other circumstances, local LGBT activists may feel that association with the United States, or any Western government, would be counterproductive and expose them to the allegation of collusion with a foreign power. In that case, stepping back and recognizing that the local activists “know best” would be the course to take, in order to allow national conversations to take their course.

This delicate diplomatic balance is not the only challenge. President Obama has taken a bold and just stance on LGBT human rights internationally. Now, Congress and other American political leaders have a vital role to play. The issue of LGBT human rights must not become one more wedge issue in American culture wars. We urge congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle to put aside partisan differences and support the human rights of all people, everywhere, regardless of sexual orientation or sexual identity.

iglhrc | June 15, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Categories: ActivismAdvocacyHuman RightsLGBT,Sexual Rights | URL: http://wp.me/ppr4i-Iz

Coming out in Cambodia: Women in same-sex relationships stand up for human rights

Theme sponsored by Progressio

Email: guardian.co.uk , Wednesday 30 May 2012 17.24 BST

In a Cambodian case that has attracted UN attention, Phlong Srey Rann is currently serving a five- year prison sentence for having sex with her girlfriend. She has been charged with human trafficking and illegal detention despite insisting that their relationship was consensual.

The case is surrounded by controversy and police are suspected of fabricating charges that the defendants’ girlfriend was underage. Srey Rann’s litigator told the Phnom Penh Post that her “girlfriend’s family bribed local authorities to change her real age” in order to take legal action against Srey Rann.

A 2010 report from the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights highlights that although same-sex relationships are legal there are many examples of lesbians being persecuted by the law. The report suggests that those in authority who discriminate and persecute LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] individuals may “conceive of such treatment as ‘punishment’ for not adhering to accepted social norms.”

Srun Srorn, a key player in the struggle for LGBT rights in Cambodia, has met lesbians from all over The Kingdom with similar experiences of heartache, discrimination and forced marriages.

He explains: “There are some [lesbian] couples that have died because their parents, family and local authorities have got involved with their cases. In Banteay Meanchay, one lesbian’s family forced her to marry a man and gave her some traditional medicine which resulted in her dying. When she died, her partner killed herself too.”

Cambodia prides itself as the Kingdom of Wonder, but overwhelming problems with poverty, low levels of education and poor health provision dominate the news and agenda for development agencies. In this context, issues of sexuality and gender identity can be overlooked or seen as a low priority.
Srorn argues that the first problem lesbians in Cambodia face, is being female in a society that favours men and boys: “Women are discriminated against and stigmatised every day by cultural norms.”

Traditionally, a Cambodian woman’s main role is to marry well and raise children. School lessons often reflect this and are geared towards preparing girls for these roles. As a result, many girls believe that this preparation is more important than academic aspirations. The Chbap Srey or Women’s Code of Conduct, which until recently was taught to all school children, outlines the importance for women to be feminine, modest and obedient thus limiting decision making power, political power and women’s social and professional capacity to express themselves and build relationships.

Although female employment is relatively high, women are more commonly employed informally by family members on a low wage. As a consequence, women are rarely financially independent and are typically dependant on their parents or their husbands. This factor is particularly significant for Cambodian lesbians as they are often financially incapable of living on their own or with their female partners.

Many Cambodian lesbians identify as neither fully male nor fully female but as third gender. A large number of women in same-sex relationships choose to express themselves using male pronouns and dressing in masculine clothes, thus transgressing gender norms. Women that express themselves in such a way find that they can be excluded from school, have limited employment options and may be excluded from their communities. As a result, many Cambodian lesbians find they are discriminated against firstly as women, and secondly as lesbians.

Ly Pisey supports women in marginalised communities including sex workers, trans women and lesbians. Pisey explains that women in same-sex relationships are often isolated in their communities and that “homosexuality has not yet been understood widely by families, communities, work places, charity workers, government officers and society as an alright way of living. Many people cannot accept it…”

In 2008, Pisey and Srorn joined forces with national and international LGBT volunteers with a shared desire to improve the situation for LGBT Cambodians. They enlisted the support of several non-governmental organisations and local businesses and together they created an extraordinary and pivotal moment in Cambodian LGBT history: The first Pride week.

Organised in 2009 to coincide with International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, for many Cambodian lesbians it was the first opportunity to celebrate their identity and meet like-minded individuals and couples from provinces all over Cambodia as well as other countries. Since this event, the organisers have continued their work and formed Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK), an LGBT rights advocacy collective.

Pride 2011 featured a Buddhist blessing ceremony. In a country which places so much importance on Buddhist teachings this ceremony was a great accomplishment in the realisation of LGBT acceptance.

This year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer Peoples Caucus convened in Phnom Penh. The convention celebrated diversity and reminded governments and members of civil society that LGBTIQ rights must be recognised, promoted and protected. This is an indicator of how successfully RoCK has not only built strong grassroots foundations but also linked in with regional and international communities.

With so many socio-economic problems present in Cambodia, some may say that focussing on the rights of lesbian identities and women in same-sex relationships is of low importance. In fact, one could argue that the empowerment of a group that faces double discrimination due to their gender and their sexual orientation could be ground-breaking by challenging societal structures that favour both heterosexuality and patriarchy.

In many cultures, women are discouraged from seeking or expressing sexual pleasure and their sexuality remains hidden. As such, in western and developing countries, female sexuality is often suppressed. These factors may be hindering development efforts.

Last year’s report from the Institute of Development studies and Pathways of Women’s Empowerment found that “focusing on the positive aspects of female sexuality is a key strategy in challenging limiting social norms that restrict women’s wellbeing and opportunities at work, in politics and in the public domain.”

Srorn and the RoCK team continue challenging deep-seated cultural beliefs that lead to discrimination: “Sometimes gays and lesbians are seen as almost sub-human by many people in our society. We want to tell those people that we are human beings- and we love who we are.”


Cambodia Pride Inspiring Story by Phil

Many countries have a Pride Day, some a Pride Week, Cambodia has a neverending Pride Festival…10 day of fun, but a little tiring…art, films, drag shows, parties, quizzes, a tuk-tuk race. I spent much of the festival dashing about distributing the CCHR Rainbow Krama (scarf) but the highlight for me was attending the Family Acceptance Workshop organized by Rainbow Kampuchea (RoCK) to mark the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) on 17 May.

RoCK is an organization with a great network of voluntary LGBT activists, led in part by the inspiring Srun Srorn, a leading activist in Cambodia. About 50 people were crammed cross legged into the room with a great mix of young to old LGBT people who had travelled to the capital for the event, visitors from NGOs in ASEAN countries also joined the day. The morning’s activities were led by a visiting group from Vietnam from the organization ICS who are based in Ho Chi Minh City. ICS came to share the approach used by their project: Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Three inspirational and emotional presentations were given by the Vietnamese groups. Firstly 2 mothers of young gay men spoke about their stories.

With interpretation going on between Khmer, Vietnamese and English, and despite the constant murmur from the crowd, participants were captivated by the stories. LGBT people share similar experiences of family acceptance and can relate to fellow stories, these were particularly emotional.

“I threw a knife at him and told him, ‘kill me if you are gay.’” The mother told, sobbing, with amazing honesty when her son came out. “I went to church and prayed, I took him to the doctor, I cried.” She then joined the PFLAG project who run family acceptance workshops and gradually began to understand and accept her son’s sexuality. After her presentation and the other Mother, all the workshop participants queued up to give the 2 ladies hugs. Then we heard from one of the ICS staff who told us:

“My parents took me to the psychoanalyst, they took me to see the monk and he fed me red rice to ‘cure’ me.” Teddy took his Mother to PFLAG and she also changed her way of thinking and accepted her son. Cambodia and other neighbouring countries are now going to look to start PFLAG initiatives.

In the afternoon we were treated to a song written by a Cambodian lesbian activist called “Give Our Children Human Rights” then there were 2 more emotional and inspiring presentations. Both by Khmer lesbian couples who have each couple been together for 40 years. The first couple, a manly character with a traditional red krama, and wife with polka dot blouse, both standing proudly with arms by their sides. She spoke for both of them, explaining she had recognized herself as a lesbian from 9 years old. She met her partner in 1976 and they stayed together through the Khmer Rouge period, during the 1980s they lived together but faced difficulties from their families trying to force them apart and marry men. She told her brother she’d kill herself if he forced them apart. Defiantly and bravely they stayed together and adopted 3 babies from the community and now have 6 grandchildren.

The second couple, who again live and appear as man and wife….I am interested in this way of lesbian couples here living as man and wife but remember that the cultural perceptions here of being lesbian or gay or transgender are much different to the West and confused further by different perceptions of gender. Again, the man in the couple spoke, they also met in 1976. Through the Khmer Rouge period (KR) they were able to firstly stay together as men and women lived separately, but when they were caught giving each other extra food they were separated and punished. Pointing her finger in the air, tears on her face she stood defiantly telling her story. She was made to dig a big hole for feeding her wife otherwise she would have been killed and in 1978 punished again for living as a couple she faced another obscure punishment of carrying and eating leaves.

Following the KR period when the population was dispersed they spent a year searching for each other. Happily they found each other but faced years of hardship as their families tried to force them to marry and they escaped to other provinces but struggled to support themselves. Eventually due to their insistence at not being separated they were accepted into their community and the village chief gave a house to live in. Their extended family began giving them children to adopt and they now have adopted 8 children. Her advice to the young people in the audience is to “love one person, one to one, not ten people!” The response of the participants was electric, hoots and cheers.

Lesbians in Cambodia are doubly disadvantaged by traditional values expecting certain roles of women. The emergent gay scene in the urban centres is dominated by gay men and lesbians not visible in this scene. Hearing from these 2 couples was certainly inspiring for me and hopefully for the many young Cambodian lesbians at the workshop too.