Report: Family values at forefront of LGBT youth discrimination in Cambodia
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Report: Family values at forefront of LGBT youth discrimination in Cambodia

By Alexandra Demetrianova

DISCRIMINATION of LGBT people because of their identity typically begins in their youth, and bullying at schools is a major part of that. While surveys suggest this is a worldwide experience, the first ever such research only came out recently in Cambodia. Conducted by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, “LGBT Bullying In Cambodian School” has documented LGBT youths’ hardships growing up in the traditional and often conservative Cambodian society.

The research surveyed LGBT people of different ages, including those in the most remote provinces, and has looked into general acceptance and experiences with bullying, in their families, communities and particularly schools.

“CCHR has previously released reports on LGBT issues in Cambodia. We felt it was especially important to turn towards the youth,” Pat de Brún, human rights consultant at CCHR told Asian Correspondent.

To focus on youth is more than relevant in the context of Cambodia, which has one of the youngest populations in the world. Bullying in childhood and puberty can have a far and deep reaching effects later in adult life as well.

“We hope that the release of this report will enable Cambodia’s LGBT community to further their campaigning efforts in the realm of LGBT rights,” Pat de Brún said.

Results of the youth-focused study don’t come as a surprise to human rights and LGBT activists in Cambodia. Participants in the research reported “insults, beatings, cursing, blaming and confiscating of personal items” by their own parents and families. At school, more than 62 percent of respondents said they had been bullied at some point during their studies. Out of those, 94 percent acknowledged that the bullying had happened partly or fully because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

  • 42 percent of respondents were bullied “often” or “daily”, more than 50 percent were bullied “sometimes”
  • Over 84 percent of those, who were bullied, were bullied verbally
  • More than 46 percent felt socially excluded
  • Almost 40 percent were bullied physically – different forms of physical violence, stolen belongings, being locked in the toilet, etc.
  • 33 percent were bullied sexually
  • The difference in percentages of verbal and physical bullying in and outside of schools was very small to almost none, therefore the school bullying and discrimination almost mirrors the outside societal behavior towards LGBT youth

(All of the statistics above refer to those interviewed participants, who acknowledged they had been bullied).

One transgender person nicknamed Kolap, interviewed by the researchers said:

“…I have a lot of experiences related to youth bullying at school. There was lots of problems: name calling, insults, yelling and exclusion from youth boy groups as they discriminate to Srey Sros (transgender women) like me. Most often they pushed me and touched my body…”

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Pic: AP.

Culture and family values are to blame, says CCHR

The CCHR report finds that the reason behind discrimination and bullying of LGBT youth is the strong tradition of family values in Cambodian society. There is a lot of pressure put on young people to pursue marriages between a man and woman and start their own family. Women and men often carry rather traditional roles in families and communities, especially in rural Cambodia. For young school students, who are dependent on their parents, family is an even more powerful institution. Coming out can therefore be a very difficult step for Cambodian LGBT youth, as most parents react negatively to their child being gay or transgender, the research says.

As CCHR reported back in 2012, many parents in Cambodia believe that their LGBT children are mentally ill and often try to cure them and bring them to a traditional Khmer doctor “grou khmer”.  As UNDP found through their research into the matter, physical violence and domestic abuse are common experiences among LGBT youth in Cambodia. The societal stigma and shame their SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression) can cast over a family’s reputation in a community puts great pressure on LGBT youth to not come out.

If they choose to reveal themselves, they can be excluded, discriminated and emotionally abused within their own families, as well as driven out of their family and community and completely excluded, the CCHR report suggests. In that case, left on their own, LGBT youth are more vulnerable to discrimination and abuse from strangers, police and others. Without a family and community, the socio-economic opportunities for and wellbeing of LGBT youth are limited. The report finds that many of them turn to sex work to earn a living – mainly homosexual men and transgender women.

Moreover, CCHR notes, that if LGBT youths are not driven out of home because of their SOGIE, they are often forced into traditional heterosexual marriages. In Cambodian culture, marriage is a very important event. Forced marriages and marital rape resonate in many cases of LGBT youths being forced to “normalize” themselves.

A 55 year old gay man said during the research interview:

“From then until now, I am really, really depressed. I always stare at my friends at school or colleagues at work and dream of finding my handsome man. I don’t dare come out with my SOGIE because my family and workplace really hates gays. Until recently, my parents often asked me ‘when will you get married?’ They stopped asking because I never answered them. I have been really sad with my life since I was a school boy and now that I’m old. I wish to express and have a serious relationship but I need to keep my own SOGIE a secret.”

Beyond religion and legally invisible                                   

LGBT people in Cambodia find themselves in a very strange array of circumstances. Historically speaking, there has never been any major mass purge against sexual minorities, unlike in other countries in the world. Therefore, there is no historical animosity against LGBT in Cambodia, but their acceptance can be contradictory in terms of religion and culture.

Theravada Buddhism, which accounts for 97 percent of religious followers in Cambodia, has rare if any accounts of being homophobic or transphobic, compared to other world religions. On the contrary, Buddhism states “there is no difference between homosexual and heterosexual behavior. Both must be free from harm and carry mutual consent.” At the 2012 Cambodia’s LGBT pride in Phnom Penh, the official closing of the event even featured a Buddhist monks blessing ceremony at the Tuol Dombok Khpos pagoda.

The head monk at the event said to the media: “Our Buddha taught us to love each other, to help each other, not to discriminate against each other.” Apparently none of the temples approached to carry out the official blessing ceremony had any issues with the event being LGBT pride.

As the CCHR report notes, a much bigger problem than religion, are social barriers and the culture of stigma, which is inherently attached to LGBT in Cambodia. This has been one of the main constraints of the research itself. Especially in rural areas, researchers relied on connections of local community leaders to LGBT people. Only those who have come out and are known to be a sexual minority have been interviewed by the researchers. Have there been other LGBT people too afraid to speak or to reveal themselves, living with their SOGIE hidden away from their community? The study therefore assumes there is much more to be discovered within, especially in remote areas of the country. Lesbian populations have been particularly difficult to approach. In Cambodia, homosexual relationships are generally more tolerated than those of lesbian or transgender people, which puts the two latter groups in a position of deeper discrimination and more invisibility.

Legally speaking, currently there is no law in Cambodia addressing the rights of LGBT people. There is no institutionalized approach of the government and public institutions to protect and let LGBT people thrive without being discriminated and viewed negatively among their fellow countrymen. Equality is guaranteed in Cambodian constitution, but there is no mention of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression: “regardless of race, color, sex, language, religious belief, political tendency, national origin, social status, wealth or other status.”

Same sex marriage used to be legally impossible in Cambodia. But the 2007 Civil code has redefined marriage into the words of “one husband” and “one wife”, therefore leaving it rather open to interpretation as there is no mention of “man” and “woman”. De facto same sex marriage could be already legal in Cambodia, some suggest. A government spokesman Phay Siphan said in September this year, that “nothing is banning same sex couples from loving each other or getting married.” Also, one must keep in mind the community level of law enforcement in Cambodia. On a local level, there has already been at least one same sex marriage recorded in a province, where a community leader allowed it and married a same sex couple.

“Lately, the Cambodian government has been engaging very positively with civil society regarding LGBT rights, and it is eager to present an image of Cambodia as an LGBT-friendly country. We hope that this report can stimulate turning those words into action,” said Pat de Brún of CCHR to Asian Correspondent.

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Participants dance in a Gay Pride rally in Katmandu, Nepal, in 2013. Pic: AP.

It seems that Cambodia is taking some inspiration from its regional neighbors. After Nepal legalized the option of stating a “third gender” or “other” in addition to the male and female choices on state documents, the Cambodian government expressed a welcome reaction, saying there was a possibility for same sex marriages to be passed as a law. The Cambodian government has also been involved in active talks with civil society on how to make teacher training and school curriculum more LGBT sensitive. However Pat de Brún adds that these remain words and more needs to be done in practice:

“While we warmly welcome this positive engagement, our message is that we need to see these words translated into action; namely, the introduction of anti-discrimination laws and the unambiguous legalisation of same-sex marriage.”

CCHR concludes that Cambodia currently lags behind its neighbors, namely Thailand and Vietnam, where positive steps towards legalizing same sex marriage and transgender rights have taken place in recent years. The state of the affairs in the Kingdom can be compared rather to Burma/Myanmar, at least in terms of overall development in inclusion of SOGIE issues in legislature.

CCHR believes, that the report published last week on Cambodian LGBT youth being bullied and discriminated against, will change things forever.

“There is huge positive energy and a lot of momentum behind the LGBT movement in Cambodia right now, and we are hopeful that this will translate into significant changes, both in terms of law, and social attitudes,” said Pat de Brún.