In December last year, members of Cambodia’s first gay Apsara dance company, Prumsodun Ok and Natyarasa, swayed gracefully to traditional music as they performed the Prayer to the Earth Goddess on a small stage at the capital’s Futures Factory.
The performance was an ode to the 10th anniversary of local NGO Rainbow Community Kampuchea (Rock) under the theme, “Warm Shelter”.
Over the past decade, the visibility of Cambodian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ) community has significantly grown, even garnering support from the Royal Government of Cambodia.
But despite the progress, the community continues to face discrimination from the public, and worse still, from their families.
Rock’s initiative aims to create space for individuals of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity, where they can proudly and uninhibitedly show their personalities without fear of persecution.
“We use love and care as a means to show the world that we could make a warm and inclusive Cambodian society.
“We’ll help each other to foster a nurturing place founded on compassion toward one another. Are you with me?” shouts Rock coordinator Ly Pisey, who is met with cheers from the crowd.
The performance was attended by 400 people including 70 same-sex couples and families, as well as local authorities, members of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC), and ministries of Women’s Affairs; Information; and Interior.
The numbers are a positive indication of the growing acceptance of the country’s LGBTIQ community – a substantial improvement from its footing a decade ago.
Programme Team Manager Heng Cheyleaphy recalls: “We started in 2009 as an unofficial organisation composed of very few members. It was in 2014 that we decided to formally register the organisation.”
Back then, issues of same-sex relationships were unheard of, says Cheyleaphy.
“We decided that, as a group of homosexual people, we could create a rainbow community to represent the minority,” she says.
When the group was formed, recounts Cheyleaphy, it only had six to seven members. However, the small numbers did not stop them from dreaming big. They envisioned an LGBTIQ community enveloped in acceptance and respect by their families, the public and government.
“Every person is unique in physique, sexuality and gender. People should be able to love whoever they want and express themselves freely and safely. That is our human right,” she says.
Over the years, the organisation gained around 2,000 members – 50 per cent of whom are homosexual.
“Looking back, even our founders were comprised of homosexuals and heterosexuals. However, the homosexual members were neither active nor forthcoming because they were shy and feared serious discrimination. They were especially afraid of being cast out by their families,” she recalls.
Tuk Raksmey, a Rock member, underwent similar discrimination from her parents. She was prohibited from engaging in a relationship with a fellow woman because her parents were wary of the social stigma that would be inflicted upon her.
More importantly, they were opposed to the possibility of her not conceiving a child.
As time passed, Raksmey has gradually made her parents accept her identity.
“I’ve been living with my current partner for five years and my parents have finally accepted us. We’re living like a real couple after a ceremonial wedding held under Rock’s support two years ago. We’re planning to raise children together in the future,” reveals Raksmey.
While Raksmey was fortunate to finally receive her parents’ blessing, many LGBTIQ are not as lucky as signified by the psychological and physical abuse that they go through because of being different.
LGBTIQ people, said Cheyleaphy, are particularly vulnerable to bullying. A study revealed that in the past decade, some LGBTIQ people quit school due to the discrimination they faced daily.
“We noticed that after Rock’s establishment, people have become more confident to let their voices be heard. They have gradually earned the acceptance they desire. It’s no longer impossible for them to dream of building a family with the partner they desire,” she notes.
For this reason, Rock aims to expand its network nationwide especially in remote areas where people have limited access to information and education.
Rock’s two main programmes involve organising and empowering LGBTIQ members across the Kingdom and garnering support from local authorities and the public.
Pisey says: “To diminish discrimination and violence against same-sex people, we must actively work in two areas. One, we must educate the families, authorities and the public through art and cultural events.
“Two, we must advocate for laws and public policies that protect the rights of LGBTIQ people. I hope this would be realised soon.”
The government will advance anti-discrimination measures in support of the LGBTIQ community, said Prime Minister Hun Sen, as quoted by CHRC president Keo Remy.
“I want every place to be a warm shelter for the LGBTIQ community. I call on the LGBTIQ peoples’ parents and families to accept the truth. Please love and care for your children and family members so we could foster a harmonious society,” adds Remy, who presided over Rock’s event.
Prumsodum Ok and Natyarasa Dance Company is on a mission to use art to alter public perception of Cambodia’s LGBTIQ community, which is still battling social prejudice.
So far, they have already made significant progress as seen by the growing presence of government officials in the audience.
Rock is located at No 47E1, St 350, Sangkat Boeng Keng Kang III, Khan Boeng Keng Kang, Phnom Penh.
For more information, visit Rockcambodia.org or call 012 481 561.