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"PRIDE and LIFE as an LGBT in Cambodia: CHALLENGES and OVERCOME"

When you hear about the word PRIDE, What do you think about it?

Of course, at first glance, PRIDE means to be proud.

Proud to be who you are. Proud to love who you love.

But there is more to it than that; PRIDE IS A PROTEST!

Initially, during the 1960s, in the US, gay sex was illegal, and homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. The LGBT community has had unfair treatment, violence and discrimination for centuries. One key historical moment was on 28 June 1969, when the police raided the famous gay bar in New York, the Stonewall Inn.

The LGBT community decided to fight back against the police brutally, and it became a massive protest for six days. This was to be the stepping stone for the Gay Liberation Movement and where the gender equality advocacy started as well. One year later, after the protest, New York organised the first-ever PRIDE march in history, which has happened annually every June of the year for over 50 years.

In Cambodia, PRIDE started celebrating parallel with International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT). Generally, we call it Pride Week; from 2003-2004, groups of the LGBT community and NGOs mainly celebrated it as the opportunity to educate and raise awareness of HIV and STIs.

Even though PRIDE has been celebrated globally for over the past fifty years, in Cambodia, we have done this for around the last twenty years. We still can see the life of the LGBTQ+ community continues to face some crucial challenges, including being unable to exercise the right to equal marriage as heterosexuals, being unable to make the full adoption, discrimination in the workplace and exclusion from family and schools.

To deepen understanding of the life and experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals. I have sat down with one extraordinary individual. An inspiring LGBTQ+ activist and a core member of the Love is Diversity Team, Chhourkimheng Tol, sat down to discuss with me her perspectives on life experiences and some real challenges that LGBTQ+, particularly in Cambodia, are facing and some of the inspirational stories of her advocacy for better changes.

Photo by: Love is Diversity, Chhourkimheng Tol, an LGBT rights activist.

Question: How old were you when you decided to come out, and was that a positive experience for you?

In my secondary years, I started to like girl classmates and feel they were special to me. When I heard society say that growing up needed to get married to a man, I was scared. I kept it a secret, and sometimes I cried at night, telling myself I had to stop thinking about it.

I knew about myself all along, but I had always kept it secret when I was young because coming out would be challenging with family, being scared of friends leaving me out, and being ashamed.

I was discriminated against at one of my workplaces and was depressed for two years. I quit that job and healed myself. And In the past few years, I was coming out, I got to know myself better, became independent and joined LOVE IS DIVERSITY. I am advocating for LGBT rights and acceptance in society. No one should be living under pressure.

Even though it is not the right time to let my parents know, my sibling supports me. I am living well and working hard, so my parents will accept me as I am. And there is a proud moment I am waiting to let my parents know about when I pass the scholarship for my dream master's degree.

Question: Do you think it will gradually become easier for young Cambodians to come out to their families and friends?

Well, I want to mention the good and the bad. We can see the excellent progress that has happened throughout these years. To those families with a progressive mindset and knowledge about human rights, it can be easy to come out, and an essential thing for LGBT people is family. The coming out depends on family response, in case the family shows care and support, so they feel love, warmth, and confidence.

On the other hand, for most Cambodians, for LGBT people, it is still challenging to come out. In Cambodia, culture comes out at a young age. It will cause them to be mentally and physically abused by violence because of family unacceptance. They will try to find a way to change their children to make them straight.

Chhourkimheng shared about her friend's experience; she is a lesbian. When she came out, her family used violence to change her. She suffered so much from the violence at the hands of her parents until they realised they could not change her, so they started to accept her.

Question: What are the challenges still faced by the LGBTQI+ community today?

The first challenge is in LGBT people themselves. While they grow up in the process and start to realise that they are not attractive to the opposite sex, they feel different from others. They struggle to accept themselves at first as well. And to their circle, like their friends, they might be scared inside that their friends will stop talking to them if they find out that there are belongs to the LGBT community. Link to the family, for LGBT, no matter how strong they are in case their family doesn't support them, they might fall into darkness and blame themselves for just being born as who they are.

The second challenge is society. Generally, as we know, violence, discrimination, lack of employment opportunities, and, more importantly, a negative impact on mental health.

The third challenge is specific laws protecting the LGBT community from violence and discrimination in the legal process. There is not yet the right to same-sex marriage in Cambodia; LGBT couples cannot obtain a family book, so they cannot buy the property registered as couples and cannot adopt. It is a great challenge and has a systematic impact on the life of the LGBT community.

Questions: How do you think these challenges can be overcome?

To address challenges, we need collective solutions from all the stakeholders to work together. At the individual level, the LGBT community should learn more about themselves, explore themselves more, know about their fundamental rights, keep improving themselves, and be more skilful and confident. Learn to love oneself.

Family; no matter who they are, they are still your children. Love in a family should be more significant than hate, so love your children unconditionally.

Society should accept as we are also human. It is natural. We are equal at the workplace: we should have a workplace policy to support, respect LGBT, and promote diversity and inclusively, and the Government must legalise same-sex marriage and ensure protection laws.

Questions: What would marriage equality mean to you and the LGBTQI+ community?

When we have equal marriage–I feel I have full rights; everyone is the same as me. I don’t feel like I am different anymore. And it can count as a legal [marriage] that protects me when I want to marry someone, and I can do many things related to the legitimate process. Equal marriage means showing support to the whole community.

When we live in a society with equal marriage, I live in the same community as other people. There is no difference between straight and LGBT in terms of love and happiness. We all deserved it. Everyone is a Cambodian citizen.

Questions: What are some things that make you proud to be part of your community?

Being a good citizen, a good friend, and a good daughter. I am proud to be who I am. I am free to live my life with pride. Before, I was upset about myself, but now when I fully accept myself, I am so proud of myself; I don’t want to be like other people. When I am by myself, I feel very comfortable and confident. I love myself right now.

“If I was given a pill that could change me to become straight, I would still want to be me.”

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