Last week we started this series with Mac-Darling Cobbinah of Ghana, and this week we are thrilled to present Sou Sotheavy of Cambodia. Born in 1940 in Takeo Province, Sotheavy survived the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge regime to become a leading figure in Cambodia’s movement for LGBTI rights. Now 74 years old, she continues to travel to the provinces to support fledgling LGBTI organizations, and she has said that she will continue to work for LGBTI rights for as long as she can walk.
It was in 1999 – Cambodia had just overcome thirty years of civil war – when Sou Sotheavy began to realize that although many civil society organizations were being founded in the newly established setting of peace and stability none of them supported LGBTI people. “Discrimination against LGBTI and sex workers was simply ignored”, says Sotheavy recalling her own background of being born as a man but identifying herself as a woman. When her family discovered her transgender orientation she was physically and emotionally abused until, at the age of 14, her mother chased her out of her home saying that “You are no longer my son.”
Sotheavy remembers clearly how lonely and abandoned she felt when she sought refuge in a pagoda which took her in. Later on, when she found her place among a group of LGBTI in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh, she realized how important support networks are. Even in her darkest hours during the rule of the Khmer Rouge from April 1975 to January 1979, an ultra-communist oppressive regime which aimed to wipe out any person they deemed to fall outside of the norm, she was able to survive with the help of other LGBTI. It was in 1999 that Sotheavy made the decision to commit her life to the fight for LGBTI who suffered like she did.
Her first initiative was to create LGBTI support groups in Phnom Penh and other provinces. Using her network of LGBTI friends in various communities, Sotheavy identified LGBTI people in five different provinces and brought them together to learn about their rights, violence against LGBTI, and health issues. In each group, a team leader was designated as focal person to receive training from Sotheavy to continue outreach and awareness-raising activities in their communities. Team leaders were assigned to become the first point of contact for emergencies or other cases where members of the LGBTI support group were in need of assistance.
Not long after, the support groups became active on their first case. In 1999, two LGBTI sex workers were killed by their clients for unknown reasons. Alerted by the support group, Sotheavy filed a complaint to the police on the victims’ behalf, who had no support from their families. However, despite several meetings with the police, no investigation has been conducted to this day, even though at each meeting the police promised to take action. In the following years, 16 other LGBTI sex workers were killed by their clients without being held accountable for their crimes.
But Sotheavy remains undaunted. Despite the challenges, her work has achieved my victories as well. Sotheavy still remembers the moment her work first made a positive difference, back in 2000 when she first began. That year, Ouk Chanara was a young boy of 16 from a province bordering Phnom Penh who decided to reveal to his parents that he was homosexual. Shortly after, Sotheavy was called by the support group to facilitate a dialogue between Ouk Chanara and his parents, who were about to chase him out of their home. With her own story in mind, Sotheavy met with the entire family for a series of consultation sessions during which she tried to foster their acceptance and understanding.
“It was a challenge to get through to the family. They were not open to any discussion in the beginning. They felt ashamed that their son behaved like this,” Sotheavy recalls. Today, Ouk Chanara has a good relationship with his parents. He was never chased out of their home and can freely live according to his sexual orientation.
Since then, Sotheavy has continued to pursue her vision of a world where LGBTI people no longer suffer discrimination and can exercise their rights like any other citizen. At present, she is working on expanding the LGBTI support groups to other provinces that have not been covered thus far. Her goal is to establish such groups in all provinces of Cambodia so that any LGBTI person can seek assistance within their own community. At the same time, Sotheavy continues to hold consultation meetings with LGBTI and their families to help restore their relationships. “The team leaders do not dare to intervene in affairs of their community members, so they call me,” explains Sotheavy. Since the beginning of this year, she has been working with four different families.
Discrimination and abuse do not only originate from the family but also from the broader community. Sotheavy’s work therefore includes outreach and awareness-raising visits where she and team leaders go from house to house in a single village to share information about LGBTI rights and call on the villagers to stop anti-LGBT discrimination and violence. Recently, these efforts were broadened through open forums where members of the community, local authority, police, and LGBTI support groups came together to listen to the testimonies of LGBTI people and discuss solutions for their problems. Such open forums were held in three different provinces with around 500 participants each. “Everyone was interested to hear about the issues that LGBTI face on a daily basis. To me it was great to see and feel the support of so many people,” recalls Sotheavy.
When asked about where she finds her strength to continue her work, Sotheavy describes the story of Cindy, a transgender woman who also called upon Sotheavy for a family consultation meeting. Despite Sotheavy’s efforts, the family asked Cindy to leave their home. Cindy made her own way and became a very successful make-up artist. Today, Cindy is the president of a foundation which provides financial support for health services or other needs of LGBTI people. “Even sometimes when we think we have failed, this work can still make a difference. That’s why I never give up.”