Srey Champa woke last Sunday morning and reached for her tweezers. Before donning the dress she chose especially for Funcinpec’s march of women voters, Srey Champa first had to pluck her beard.
Srey Champa, 37, is one of several male transsexuals who joined Funcinpec candidate Princess Norodom Vacheara and Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua in song last weekend to rally support for their pro-women platform. Their inclusion in the convoy is politically risky, as homosexuals and transsexuals are not widely accepted by voting Cambodians. But Mu Sochua said she is willing to lose votes to gain equality.
“This is not a political game. They [transsexuals] are a marginalized group with no voice,” Mu Sochua said. “Cambodia will never be ready for them until someone gives them the platform.”
Princess Vacheara said she too is prepared to fight for human rights for all, although she did not hesitate to credit Mu Sochua for involving transsexual men in the women’s rally.
“Mu Sochua wants to show that we don’t make any discrimination. I agree,” Princess Vacheara said after some hesitation. “They have exactly the same human rights as all women.”
The same rights and the same problems, according to Urban Sector Group’s crisis coordinator Tun Sam Thy. Discrimination against Cambodia’s approximately 500 transsexuals—manifested in lost opportunities and verbal and physical attacks—is more familiar than it is unknown.
“They are not men and they’re not women, so nobody likes them,” she said.
Most transsexuals are driven into the sex trade because few employers are willing to work with them. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS is extremely high among these sex workers, who also face increased harassment from police, Tun Sam Thy said. Others earn money styling hair, applying makeup or singing and dancing.
Commonly referred to as “kteuy,” a derogatory term also used for gay men, transsexuals prefer the name “srey sros,” or charming girl. Srey sros say they feel more like women than men, often donning women’s clothes, wigs and makeup to pronounce their identities. They are not gay, they say, because they do not feel male.
“I’m very angry when I’m called ‘kteuy.’ I yell at them and tell them I want to be like them,” said Lach Sophon, 19. “But I don’t feel sad, because I know I feel like a woman.”
Members of Urban Sector’s transsexual support groups adopted the term in 2000, carving a distinct niche in society where neither man nor woman reside. The new vocabulary offers srey sros a means not only to distinguish themselves from the sweeping “kteuy” terminology, but to defend it as well.
While Cambodian culture makes few distinctions between members of the gay community, srey sros are adamant about their differences. Kim Seng Huot, 19, said she respects gay men but could not have sex with them because male homosexuals are attracted to other men.
“I respect them but I cannot accept them. I am a woman,” she said. Her friends agreed and said distinctions must also be drawn between srey sros community members.
Dressed in the latest men’s market fashions, Lach Sophon’s long hair and coy looks are the only outer evidence of his inner feelings. Because he still lives at home with his parents, Lach Sophon is prohibited from dressing lady-like and is not considered a “real” srey sros.
“Real” srey sros, like Srey Champa, maintain their female identities at all times. Srey Champa normally wears a wig styled into a neat brunette bob, eyeliner, lipstick and a padded bra.
She said she felt elated standing on Funcinpec’s campaign truck but does not believe her presence was a political statement. Whether singing at private weddings or Funcinpec rallies, it’s all just entertainment, he said.
“Society does not accept the third kind of people, so we have no plans to go political,” Srey Champa said. “What I’m doing is making money.”
But a Khmer HIV/AIDS NGO Alliance researcher said the march was a political statement and a major step forward for the transsexual community.
“It helps open up discussion with the average Cambodian, which today treats them like second-class citizens,” said Ambrosio Chatalla.
Following Sunday’s march, bystanders could not decide if equal human rights entailed voting for a party with transsexuals on their truck.
A phone booth attendant stationed near Phsar Olympic said everyone deserves equal rights but she would not like a party that supports gay men.
“I could not vote for them,” she said, identifying herself only as “Vy.”
Nay Sroeur, 53, stopped loading bricks into a bucket to shake his head.
“I am a man, so how can I support a gay man? How do gay men develop a country? It’s impossible,” he said.
Mu Sochua acknowledged that her beliefs are extremely liberal for Cambodian society but said she would persevere at the risk of losing support.
“I take [criticism] with a lot of pride and I accept the challenge,” she said.