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female nor entirely male. Consequently, many reject femininity in favour of a masculine appearance and draw on masculine pronouns for self identification. In a culture that places such a high value on gender roles, Cambodian lesbians often find themselves living on the outskirts of society and facing discrimination both as women and as lesbians. Many Cambodian lesbians feel great pressure from their families to get married to men. Furthermore, there have been some cases of lesbian couples being forced apart by their families. In 2010, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights reported the case of a young women in her 20s who was about to enter a marriage arranged by her parents. Before the ceremony, she ran away and her parents discovered she had been in a rela- tionship with a woman for a number of years. Her parents called the police, who forcibly returned her to them despite her rights as an autonomous adult. In order to keep her from running away to her partner again, a family member tied her to a chair by her hands and feet for two days. The lack of education and employment options can make it even more difficult for woman to live openly as lesbians as they may find themselves dependent on their family for financial support. A friend of mine, Solida Keo*, is currently studying a postgradu- ate degree. She explains: “Being financially independent allows me to be myself more easily in modern society. This is true for other Cambodian women – earning money allows us to have a voice inside the family… however, it does not mean I can be out to anyone. I still have to be very selective to whom I would want to come out.” Solida feels that it is easier to be a lesbian in the capital city than in the countryside as people in the city generally have a higher level of education and are more open-minded. Ly Pisey is a 27-year-old activist who cam- paigns tirelessly for the rights of marginal- ized and vulnerable groups including sex workers, lesbians and transgender women. As a woman living in Phnom Penh, the capital city, she says 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 can not accept it”. In this environment it is hardly surprising that many Cambodian lesbians struggle to come out to their friends and families. As a public figure, Pisey is often in the media, and although she recognizes that she has no obligation to come out publicly, she feels that remaining silent about her sexuality can cre- ate barriers to effective dialogue and mutual understanding.



| Fe ATuRe | camboDia |

070_Cambodian.indd 71 | Fe ATuRe | camboDia | “bELiEVE iN youRSELf aND StaND up foR youR-

“bELiEVE iN youRSELf aND StaND up foR youR- SELf, No mattER what. wE haVE oNLy oNE LifE aND wE ShouLD LiVE it bEautifuLLy” (Solida keo)

In Asia, the importance of “saving face”, or protecting family honour, has a massive influ- ence on all aspects of life. In this way, many Cambodian lesbians feel forced to keep their sexuality a secret for fear of bringing shame on the family. “I am not afraid to talk about homosexuality but when it cames to my own story, I always feel a lack of confidence. Not because of me individually, I think of the feelings of people around me, like my family or lover, for instance, who would have to face their feelings of being shameful,” adds Pisey. Although life for lesbians is still difficult in Cambodia, the past few years have seen dramatic changes. When I arrived in 2008, lesbians were largely invisible; whilst relation- ships between men were on the radar due to HIV prevention efforts, many lesbians did not even know there were other women like them. In the wake of the first Pride week held in Phnom Penh in 2009 to mark International Day Against Homophobia, a number of serv- ices began to appear for lesbian and bisexual women. Rainbow Community Kampucha (RoCK) is a collective of international and local LGBT volunteers who have formed a grassroots advocacy group, providing support to LGBTs and training on issues surrounding sexual ori- entation and gender identity. RoCK provides much-needed information and support for

women regarding sexual health, family rela- tionships and community strengthening. These successes should be celebrated, but for Pisey, there is still a long way to go: “I wish that young and old LGBT [people] and other marginalized groups become stronger, stay connected and support each other politi- cally, economically and socially. If we do this, together we can extend the awareness and understanding around our sexuality and our natrual loves.” D

*Some names have been changed

camboDia’S LEaDERS oN LESbiaNiSm

There are conflicting messages on same-sex relationships from Cambodia’s leaders. In 2007, Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen publicly dis- owned his lesbian daughter, saying: “I educated the whole country, but I could not educate my own adopted daughter.” However, in the same speech he said that he did not want parents to discriminate against their gay children. In contrast, King-Father Norodom Sihanouk expressed support for same-sex relationships in 2004. He wrote on his website that Cambodia should allow “marriage between man and man or between woman and woman”. He added that gay and lesbian people are this way because god loves a “wide range of tastes”.

MARCH 2012