Study Details KR Abuse of Transgender People

Despite being born female in Takeo province’s Bati district, Sok Yun never felt like a girl growing up.

“I started living like a boy from the age of 8…. I wanted to be a strong man and do all the jobs that men would do, not a weak woman,” Mr. Yun said in an interview Monday.

Sou Sotheavy (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)
Sou Sotheavy (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

Mr. Yun’s determination to live as a man became more precarious after the Khmer Rouge took control of the country in 1975. Under the regime, gender roles were clearly defined, and going against the grain could result in death.

“When I used to wear trousers, the Khmer Rouge told me ‘no’ and tried to get me to wear a skirt. They warned me that if I did not follow their rules they would take me and kill me in the forest,” said Mr. Yun.

Eventually Mr. Yun—who was punished with extra hard labor after refusing to marry a man— won over the Khmer Rouge overseeing his worksite, as they realized they could utilize his physical prowess when digging dams and moving earth.

Mr. Yun’s story is one of many documented in the first-ever in-depth study of the treatment of sexual minorities during the Khmer Rouge era, which was released Friday.

The study, carried out by Kasumi Nakagawa, a Japanese professor of gender studies at Pannasastra University in Phnom Penh, contains interviews with 48 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, uncovering for the first time the sexual and emotional abuse inflicted on sexual minorities under the Pol Pot regime.

All interviewees reported having to hide their sexuality for fear of being killed, while many said they were subjected to forced marriage, rape and sexual abuse by Khmer Rouge soldiers and officials. All gay men and most of the transgender women surveyed said they had experienced sexual violence.

One transgender woman from Battambang province recounted being raped by a local Khmer Rouge leader.

“At first, when I was called [by him], I did not go. I was scared. But if I didn’t go, I would be killed,” she said.

“Finally, KR said that he wanted to sleep with me. He directly said like that and then I did not say anything, I kept quiet…. Later on, he ordered me again to sleep with him. He called me to go to bed with him,” she said.

The interviewee told how she fled her village once her abuser’s killing escalated, worried she would be next, only to be raped by another Khmer Rouge leader at her next location.

Another transgender woman—who was subjected to even more extreme abuse due to being a “new person” from Phnom Penh—explained in graphic detail how she lost consciousness and sustained internal injuries after being gang-raped.

Seventeen transgender women in the study said they were forced into marriages against their will during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Ms. Nakagawa said last week she believed the higher levels of sexual violence perpetrated against gay and transgender women could be attributed to the definitions of “moral offenses” lined out by the communist party’s upper echelons.

“One of the analyses is that in the KR time, it was a crime if a man abused a woman and everybody knew this,” Ms. Nakagawa said.

“But several KR and non-KR thought that if they abuse men they will not be punished. It might be one of the driving factors that allows their sexual entitlement theory,” she added. “As far as I know in my research, no women were forced to do oral sex, but my research showed that gay men and transgender women were.”

Still, not all the transgender people interviewed in the study reported being singled out. Vann Sivanna, a transgender man, said that under the regime he had become close with Khmer Rouge soldiers and they had even protected him from being killed.

“I don’t think they cared about my being transgender, they just wanted me to do everything I could for the organization,” Mr. Sivanna said in an interview last week.

“There was one man in my commune who tried to be a woman, and they let him do woman’s jobs like washing the clothes,” he added.

Sou Sotheavy, a transgender rights activist, said she was raped by 14 Khmer Rouge soldiers during the regime and also performed sex acts in exchange for food.

“When I was in one underground prison during the Khmer Rouge, soldiers would only give me pork and beef if I agreed to massage them and do sexual things for them,” she said. “At first, some of the other guards were not sure, but after the first guard, he told them it was like having sex with a woman.”

The 76-year-old was also interviewed as part of Ms. Nakagawa’s research and said she believed speaking about the horrors that much of the gay and transgender community were subjected to could act as a form of catharsis.

“In the provinces especially, people that experienced the same as me can talk with each other, including experiences such as rape…this is helpful for us.”

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