In Cambodia, Some Families Still Try To 'Cure' LGBT Sons And Daughters

“All classes are likely to hide their sexuality out of fear of being associated with mental illness or sin.”
Cambodian LGBT activists gather in Phnom Penh to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and B
Cambodian LGBT activists gather in Phnom Penh to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia in May 2015. 

This is the fourth part of a 10-part series on LGBT rights in Southeast Asia, which uncovers the challenges facing the LGBT community in the region and highlights the courageous work of activists there.


When Meas Sophanuth started to transition in high school, his mother -- afraid that her child would bring shame to the family -- tried to stop what she saw as his “unnatural” behavior.

She took away his phone, kept him at home, and forbade him from seeing his friends. She finally took her son to a traditional healer, known in Cambodia as a Kru Khmer, in the hope that the shaman would be able to “cure” him.

It was a traumatic experience, Sophanuth, who identifies as transgender, told the Phnom Penh Post last year. “After that, I did not feel warm to my parents anymore. They frightened me,” he said.

Such attempts at “curing” are not uncommon in Cambodia, where LGBT people are often seen as being mentally ill or as being possessed with “bad spirits.”

“Usually the Kru Khmer will chant something [at the LGBT person], sometimes they burn the head, back or palm,” Srun Srorn, an LGBT activist, says of a typical “curing” ritual. “When they burn they believe the bad spirits will fly away. Sometimes they use the bamboo to hit the person.”

Homosexuality is not criminalized in Cambodia, which is a predominantly Buddhist country, but marginalization of the LGBT community is widespread.

“Many LGBT persons reported rejection by their families, or subjection to such treatment as forced marriages, attempted ‘cures,’ and mental and physical abuse,” according to a 2014 USAID/UNDP survey.

“While Buddhism is very tolerant of LGBTI generally, Cambodia still has a deep-seated family-oriented traditional culture that creates an overall negative perception of LGBTI people,” Nuon Sidara of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights tells The Huffington Post. “Most LGBTI people still find it difficult to come out because stigma and discrimination against them is highly prevalent. All classes -- from the poor to the highest-ranking officials -- are likely to hide their sexuality out of fear for their reputation, and of being associated with mental illness or sin.” 

Cambodian activists say that there are signs, however, that times are changing. Progress has been incredibly slow, but it hasn't been entirely absent.

In 2011, a ban prohibiting gay marriage was abolished, rendering same-sex unions neither legal nor illegal. Since then, Sidara says, there are occasional same-sex marriages in some parts of the country. "Some village chiefs have decided to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples in cases where one of the couple is willing to identify as the opposite sex on the marriage certificate,” Sidara explains. 

In urban centers like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, “thriving” LGBT communities can be found, Sidara says, and “many LGBTI people live open and happy lives there.”

Since 2004, the LGBT community and its allies have gathered in Phnom Penh in mid-May to celebrate Pride Week. The theme of this year's event was “I am what I am.” 

Though the Cambodian government's reputation has been marred for decades by accusations of corruption, vote rigging and gross human rights abuses, activists say that it has shown some willingness to engage with LGBT issues. 

The government, for instance, has recently shown support for programs combating LGBT-based discrimination in schools. This year, it is backing an initiative spearheaded by UNESCO and CCHR to deliver LGBT sensitivity training to thousands of Cambodian teachers.

Still, activists say, the country has a long way to go to “curing the problem instead of the people.” 

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