Bun Khim is a transgender man. But on the birth certificates of his adopted son and daughter, he is listed as their mother. And his wife, in their family registration book, is listed as his sister.
The arrangement was arrived at semi-formally, thanks to friendly local officials, to make the adoptions feasible. But it also means that Khim has concerns if something happened to him: His wife, Yen Sreypheak, might not have legal standing to take care of their children without him.
LGBT adoptions in Cambodia are a maze for couples to navigate because the country’s Civil Code only allows full adoptions by legally married couples — and legal marriages are restricted to a man and a woman. LGBT couples face a lack of official recognition, potential legal difficulties, and a sidestepping of the formal processes for protecting children, forcing them to rely on informal or partial adoptions instead.
Khim, 41, lives in Kampot province with Sreypheak, where they both work in the local market selling gold and jewelry. Though born a girl, Khim was always attracted to females and now identifies as a man, he says.
His children, aged 12 and 10, are still somewhat confused about his gender. The older son looks at his ID card, which says Khim is a woman, and looks at Khim’s face, which the boy has come to see as a man’s.
“I don’t know what he thinks. But he has grown up with me. He loves us,” Khim says. He thinks his children have some understanding of his gender, but are hesitant to ask directly. They will understand it by themselves in time, Khim says, and he sees no need to explain it for now.
He is also worried about whether his children might face discrimination; he has heard his son’s friends talking that the boy’s father is a woman. But most people, including children, are accepting, and he and his wife make sure their children are well provided for, he says.
“We are parents. We need to be strong,” Khim says. “Those kids have a bike. Our kids also have bikes too.”
He adds that the joy of parenting comes from arriving home from work and seeing the children. “It’s happy and warm. Yes, when we have kids we try to work more because we are scared we can’t take care of them well,” Khim says. “We love children. We wanted them. … We saw people having kids and they looked happy.”
His son has now been with him and his wife for 11 years. The adoption came about thanks to a village chief who understands and knows Khim well. “I was the lucky one,” he says.
The child’s biological mother also lived in Kampot province, but believed she would be unable to take care of her newborn baby because the father ran away while she was pregnant. Khim and his partner were there at the birth — “Since they opened their eyes as a baby and saw us,” Khim says.
He then went to the commune office with a police officer as a witness to receive a birth certificate with his name on it. “I could only choose one person to put on my child’s birth certificate as a mother. So we decided to put mine,” Khim says. They also added entries to their family book.
“My wife is my sister. My wife and I cannot be like others,” he says of the arrangement.
Khim also notes that he did not go to court or to national authorities to formalize the adoption, and gave the biological mother some money as a gift — a potentially contentious situation for adoptions if there is deemed to be a power imbalance.
Cheng Sophim, Toek Chhou district’s Trapaing Thom commune chief, says she is open to approving adoptions for LGBT couples, following the practice of her previous commune chief. The couple and administration reach a compromise and produce a birth certificate with one of the adopting parents on it, Sophim says. The certificates have only one name, just like those for children without known fathers, so they are not uncommon, she adds.
“As the authority, I don’t discriminate against them, but encourage them as long as they are happy together,” Sophim says.
Lawyer Sek Sophorn says the law is not in favor of LGBT adoptions. There are two types of adoptions in law — full and simple — but they both require couples to take their cases through the courts. Full adoptions are only possible for married couples, while simple adoptions allow a single parent to have limited rights over a child.
“The local authority can only be a witness in reaching agreements with each other,” Sophorn says.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights cautions in a 2017 report that simple adoptions, while opening the possibility for one member of a same-sex or LGBT couple to adopt, leaves the other partner without rights and also allows biological parents to reassert their claims at any time.
Lim Borin, a CCHR coordinator for the sexual orientation and gender identity project, says it is common in villages for people to know families who want to give up a child due to the death of the mother or some other hardship.
And usually, adopting families then go to local authorities to reach an agreement with the biological parents rather than taking the case through court procedures, Borin says. Some local officials are helpful, but others are not, he adds.
“There has been a case that authorities gave permission for [a same-sex couple] but they later took back the permission,” Borin says.
Such local agreements can only be partial procedures, he adds, and urges the legalization of same-sex marriages to also enable full legal adoptions. Allowing couples to go through formal processes can help protect children from bad situations or even trafficking.
“If there is inequity [between families] and it is found they have given money, it can turn into human trafficking.”
Unicef representatives in Cambodia did not respond to questions about protections for children during the adoption process.
Ben Somnang, 49, a transgender woman, says she and her partner long wanted to have a family together. “We dreamed of having children, like other people,” Somnang says.
In 2008, they met a couple who wanted to find someone to take their child, but there was hesitancy, she says. “They didn’t really trust us much as a same-sex couple, that we wouldn’t raise the child well.”
The process repeated for their second child, she says. “I told them: You should think. I am gay; I cannot have a baby — only females and males can have a baby.” If she were to adopt a baby, it could only be because she really wanted one. “Yes, I am gay, so I must take care of the child very well until I get old. I joked with them like this, and I gave my number to them.”
The birth registrations and family books for Somnang are also a compromise — listing Somnang as a mother and her gender as woman-brackets-man.
Somnang says she worries about her two children, especially about discrimination from other kids. She hasn’t necessarily found support among LGBT community members either, many of whom question why she would want children in the first place.
“It is not only people outside. Some in the gay community also discriminate against us, like, having kids makes you busy and you can’t hang out or dance, the kids will be difficult once they’ve grown-up.”
But she also receives admiration for taking good care of her children, and her older 14-year-old son understands that she is gay and is happy to have her and her partner as his parents, she says.