LGBT Pride Week in Cambodia: Reconciling Family Norms with Sexual Orientation

This painting is by self-taught Cambodian artist called Thang Sothea. He contributed 14 acrylic paintings to the Pride Week 2011 exhibit at Meta House, the German Cambodian Cultural Center in Phnom Penh.

Last week, Cambodia finished celebrating its third official lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pride celebration, a week of movie screenings, workshops and other activities organized by Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK).

The celebration of LGBT rights in Cambodia has come a long way. Between 2003 and the first official LGBT pride week in 2009, these celebrations in Cambodia were limited to just one evening a year.

Collette O’Regan, a member of the organizing committee, says that the hosting of such an extensive and well-organized week, like Pride 2011, marks a new beginning for LGBT rights in Cambodia. Previously, it was mostly the ‘men having sex with men’ or MSM community that was organized and supported by donors. This necessarily excluded women and stigmatized transgender and sexual orientation by linking it to HIV/AIDS. “You can imagine what this leads to, including horrific discrimination, violence, self-harm and suicide,” she said.

O’Regan agrees that discrimination towards the LGBT community in Cambodia is not on the same publicly homophobic and violent scale as in other countries (although there are worrying instances of violence, such as the recent beating of LGBT bar owner KyePoirrier). For example, in Uganda, David Kato, a Ugandan LGBT rights activist, was murdered after appearing on the front page of Rolling Stone, a Ugandan newspaper. The newspaper had published a photo of Kato and other people it said were gay under the headline “Hang Them.”

O’Regan suggests the relative lack of violent homophobia in Cambodia is linked to the country’s official religion, Buddhism, which is more tolerant of homosexuality. Pisey Ly, a Cambodian LGBT rights activist, also points out that – save for Cambodia’s family law, which only allows for opposite sex marriages – laws do not discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation (in other countries, like Uganda, homosexuality is illegal). “Our constitution guarantees all citizens rights, to enjoy those rights no matter what your sexual orientation is.” Nor does she ask for special treatment: “There is no specific law protecting LGBT rights, nor [does the LGBT community] feel like they need a specific law. They want to be treated like other citizens.”

The struggle, however, is in having these basic universal rights enforced for LGBT individuals. She tells the story of a family who threatened to have their lesbian daughter’s partner raped. Another family paid a bribe to the police to have their daughter’s partner intimidated. One lesbian girl told Ly that her family threatened to have her killed. Had that happened, Ly doubts that the police would have intervened. Ly suggests that this type of behavior among law enforcement officials can be associated with a lack of information, “They do not understand what sexual orientation is and think it is unnatural.”

While political figures have generally been tolerant of homosexuality, there have been some notable exceptions, for instance, when Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly disowned his lesbian daughter. This also suggests a less tolerant environment. Homophobia is also particularly pronounced within the family. “For lesbians, there is no mechanism for them to come out and express what they are suffering. They are also committing suicide or running away from home because they are being forced to marry,” says O’Regan. As detailed in an extensive report published in 2010 by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), Cambodian society is generally tolerant of male homosexual behavior if it does not affect the traditional family structure. Women, who are expected to marry young and have children, are faced with more family pressures.

O’Regan believes one critical way to combat homophobia in the family in Cambodia, particularly for lesbians, is to focus on helping LGBT members become economically independent. “Everyone, like most Cambodians, is poverty challenged. People just want to be able to have a decent life, so they need decent work,” she explains, “One hugely effective way of getting family acceptance in Cambodia is to have a job, to be able to help your family very practically.”

She says that some of the lesbians who are economically independent are not only accepted by their families, but also by their communities since they can contribute to community fundraising. “This is another way in which the rest of the community stands back and says well I guess they are alright, they are doing what everyone else is doing.”

Despite a greater general public acceptance of homosexuality in Cambodia compared to other countries, O’Regan is still firm that these types of events could not happen unless they remain under the radar. “There is no way we could do what we are doing if we were blowing it from trumpets. If it were being mediated by NGOs it would also not be happening because NGOs are terrified of anything to do with rights.”

The real success in organizing an event like the LGBT Pride Week in Cambodia is the use of informal voluntary networks. “There are a couple of donors who understand that [informal networks] are what one needs in a civil society in order to make sure that marginalized groups don’t get cut out altogether.” In the long-run, both Ly and O’Regan hope that the LGBT pride celebration in Cambodia will contribute to greater acceptance and understanding of different sexual orientations in Cambodia.

Siena Anstis is a Swedish-Canadian law student (BCL/LLB McGill University 2013), freelance journalist and development communications consultant currently based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Previously, she worked with Battery Operated Systems for Community Outreach (BOSCO) in Northern Uganda and an 8-month fellowship with the Aga Khan Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya. Recipient of the 2009 Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) Journalism and Development Award, she has written about ICT4D, human rights and other social issues in Kenya, Uganda and Kosovo. She is also founder and advisor for Women of Kireka, a women’s jewelry business in the Kireka quarry in Kampala and Project Diaspora team member.