Out Adventures loves to connect travellers with people from the LGBT communities in the far-flung lands we visit. It’s a great way to get the most authentic perspective on what life is like. One such connection was with Rath, a gay Cambodian who is still married to his wife while fighting for marriage equality. During our Laos & Cambodia: Buddhist Sights & City Nights gay tour, our guests had a relaxed dinner with Rath and were able to ask questions about the country’s emerging LGBT movement.
Read on to meet this activist who shares his story as well as sheds some light on the nuanced LGBT Cambodian experience.
Please introduce yourself to our travellers.
My name is Sopharac Phin, but I go by Rath. I’m 34-years-old and from a big family of nine. My hometown is Kompong Kdei, about an hour drive from Siem Reap, though I moved to the city when I was 17 to get a better education and job opportunities.
To learn English I worked in different areas of tourism and studied Tourism Management. Now I am working as a tour guide, which is my my dream job.
What is the political status of the LGBT community in Cambodia?
Everyone has equal rights – we don’t have any laws that prosecute LGBT people, and Buddhism does not say anything about it either (FYI, 97% of Cambodians practice Buddhism). All of us are equal and will be treated the same so as long as we don’t break the law or harm others. However, even though we aren’t prosecuted, the LGBT community does have more pressure and challenges in life.
The Khmer Rouge regime killed almost 2 million Cambodians from 1975-1979 which affected almost everybody in the country. Today, it’s not easy to find Cambodians over 40-years-old that have not lost family members, so people are pressured by their parents and older generations to have babies even if they are LGBT. Some parents try to change the way their children behave, or worry they cannot deliver another generation.
What is the current cultural state of LGBT rights in Cambodia?
After our country found peace, we were left with a very young population. Today, 55% of people are under 30-years-old. Unfortunately this means a lot of our traditions are disappearing. But the young generation doesn’t care about sexual orientation, and parents my age will love their kids just the way they are. Our Chief of Human Rights in the government is even seeking support for same-sex marriage. There are still, however, some very remote areas where education is limited and people aren’t as accepting.
As Westerners we think of Southeast Asia as a welcoming region for gay men and lesbians. Are there any differences between what we’d experience in Cambodia versus neighbouring countries like Thailand, Laos or Vietnam?
The thing that all these countries share is Buddhism, which teaches tolerance. While Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were colonized by the French, no sodomy laws were left behind – unlike Singapore, Malaysia and India. The one thing visitors almost universally love about Cambodia is our people: warm, welcoming and non-judgmental. Homosexuality and bisexuality are in no way considered abnormal, but our culture is rather conservative. There are bars and hotels in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh that attract gay clients, but saunas and go-go shows do not exist here, and probably never will. But you won’t find Khmer people difficult to meet or afraid to interact with visitors.
On a more personal note, can you tell us about your own experience growing up gay in Cambodia? Was it difficult? Did you always know you were gay?
I grew up in a rural farming area that was a battle zone. There was lots of starvation and little education. I was expected to fit a certain manly character. When I was 15 people tried to match me with different girls. I never reacted, but also didn’t want to show that I wanted to be close to a man. It was complicated. At 17 I had my first sexual relationship with an older widow…that’s when I knew for sure who I was.
How did you come out to your family and friends?
Well, the first one I told was my wife…her reaction was to laugh in my face and told me she always knew. She said, “Whenever we were at the beach, you and I always looked at the same guy!!!” And I am still a married man!
What do you think Cambodia’s LGBT community needs to do to gain acceptance both politically and culturally?
The community needs to educate the general public on LGBT issues. Then we can push the Cambodian government on LGBT protections and equal rights under the law.
Finally, what do you hope to see for LGBT Cambodians in 10 years?
We are going to have same-sex marriage!
This interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Header image courtesy of Sopharac Phin.