Kamsort, 23, said he felt lost for a few years until he was sure about his homosexuality. Until then, he couldn’t talk about the feelings with anyone; he didn’t know what he wanted.
“I felt pressure,” he said. “And when I knew, for myself, I wanted to consult with someone. But I didn’t trust them. I was scared and didn’t trust people to know about it. They might not support me or they might discourage me.”
“It was hard for me when I couldn’t have anybody to talk with. I was scared that my family and friends wouldn’t accept me. I was so stressed.”
It was late 2020 when, feeling more confident about his identity, Kamsort told some of his close friends.
But some were not accepting, and told him to change. Scared of losing their companionship, he continued to talk to them, but the ceaseless teasing hurt.
“My friends told me not to be this kind of person. They even begged me to not love same-sex people,” said Kamsort, who declined to have his full name used. It was especially bad with friends outside Phnom Penh, he said, and some people seemed to start to dislike him.
Kamsort sees intolerance still prevalent around him. Especially on social media, there are frequent comments that the LGBTQ community is going against Buddhist social order, he says.
Since last month, LGBTQ group Rainbow Community Kampuchea has embarked on a campaign, “I Accept,” to push for same-sex marriage. It wants a Constitutional amendment protecting same-sex marriage and ending discrimination against gender and sexual orientation, as also recommended in a periodic review by the U.N.
Currently, Article 45 of the Constitution stipulates marriage “on the principle of mutual consent between one husband and one wife.” No law explicitly prohibits same-sex marriages, and couples can hold unofficial wedding ceremonies. But they can’t obtain a marriage certificate or legal recognition, according to Rainbow Community Kampuchea, or Rock.
For Kamsort, a law change could be a tool to help people be more understanding. Gay couples who are open about their sexuality face harassment, he said.
“I always hear the weird questions they ask of same-sex couples,” Kamsort said.
He hears: Are you like a boy or a girl?
Or coworkers will pry: Did you realize you were gay because you got a boyfriend?
“I think if we have this law, we can protect LGBT couples legally like other people,” he said.
Lesbian and bisexual women as well as transgender men frequently reported facing family pressures, harsh criticism and violence in a 2019 survey by Rainbow Community Kampuchea, “I Married a Man to Satisfy My Parents.”
Among 61 surveyed people, 81 percent had faced emotional violence, 10 percent experienced sexual violence — most commonly forced marriages — and 35 percent had considered suicide due to their family’s denial of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Case studies showed some people running away from home, or even in one case, a trans man allegedly being placed in a drug rehabilitation center by his mother for the purpose of “fixing his gender.”
“My mother always said horribly harsh things to me, such as ‘if I knew that you would become like this, I would have killed you when you were born,’” the man said in the study.
Rainbow Community Kampuchea’s Say Seaklay, campaign manager for “I Accept,” said same-sex couples faced legal and administration hurdles because they cannot be lawfully married.
When Seaklay was studying in New Zealand, his partner wanted to visit him for a holiday. But the partner was unable to get a visa because their relationship wasn’t recognized.
A legal marriage certificate would have made a difference, and there are other frequent issues when it comes to couples’ children, he said.
“When we have legal marriages, children will be protected, and there are advantages in society,” he said.
Head of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee Keo Remy has made comments urging citizens not to discriminate based on sexual orientation but did not respond to questions about whether the government was moving toward amending the Constitution to protect all consensual relationships.
Seaklay, of Rock, appreciated the effort, saying Remy had attended the launch of the “I Accept” program. “Moreover, he also raises [concerns] in meetings with the government related to LGBT people,” he said.
He added that the campaign was also about acceptance in the public eye, using social media messages to raise awareness about the importance of legalizing same-sex marriage.
“Acceptance from the family: to open their hearts,” he said. “When you love one another, who will accept you? Whether they’re accepted or not accepted, we can still have laws to accept us,” he said.
Kamsort, the 23-year-old, said that for him finding a community had made a huge difference. When his friends lacked understanding, he found the LGBTQ community as a place he could discuss what he was going through.
And in his case, he was lucky to have an accepting family, he said, even though they were the last people he told, in late 2021.
“When I told my brother, he did not talk much, but he was totally fine. I told my brother that when I can be the real me I feel happier than before. And my brother told me, ‘I’m glad you can be yourself. I won’t complain about anything as long you are happy.’”
Kamsort was not so direct with his mother, but she already seemed to know and understand.
“I think my mother is OK with it. I need to tell her face-to-face when the right time comes again soon.”