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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Slade

Queer Lives, Part I

Updated: Jul 7, 2023

Thailand & Cambodia

Elo & Rada, two Cambodian trans women, pose for the camera.
Elo & Rada, Cambodia

For queer travellers, a Thai or Cambodian vacation offers something more than the beaches, food and culture: the chance to be themselves. Siem Reap and in particular, Bangkok, have built a reputation as some of the most LGBTQ+ friendly destinations in Asia, attracting large numbers of tourists with their thriving gay scenes and the promise of a more inclusive society.

I wanted to speak to queer people who grew up here and who are navigating laws and conventions which, despite their countries' positive reputation, seem flimsy at best and non-existent at worst. To what extent are the freedoms enjoyed by tourists afforded to queer Thais and Cambodians?

Angsumalin & Parkers in Bangkok, Thailand

This is the first question I ask when I sit down with 24 year-old Parkers and his mum, Angsumalin. Parkers is a recent English literature graduate of Bangkok's Thammasat University. He's also a fierce advocate for queer rights, both within and outside the student community.

He smiles sadly. "It's totally different," he says. "If you're white and bringing tourist money, nobody cares. For Thais, there's still a lot of stigma."

Breaking that stigma is the reason Parkers and his mum are here. Giving interviews has become a common occurrence for them, simply because there are so few parents willing to advocate so publicly for their LGBTQ+ kids. It has put them both in the firing line for abuse online, but they've decided to try and change perceptions for the better and have built up thick skins.

Parkers was 18 when he told his mum that he'd never felt like a girl and couldn't bring himself to wear the school uniform any more. His time at high school had been miserable, but gradually, things were about to get better. For a start, this conversation was one that Angsumalin had long since prepared for, and she was determined to support her child unconditionally.

Then, at university, Parkers entered a world in which he began to feel accepted for who he was. For the first time, he had a professor who supported him and respected his gender identity. Other staff started coming to him for advice about how to handle gay and trans issues sensitively within the university. Parkers grew in confidence and had the courage to start advocating for better understanding of the queer community and to provide support for those who needed it.

While studying for his Bachelors, Parkers read about asexual and aromantic people for the first time. It was a bit of a 'lightbulb moment' and he resolved to do more to increase awareness to help others like him. He now helps run an online community for asexual and aromantic students and has reached many others through his courage to speak openly despite a lack of understanding in Thai society.

The more we talk, the more the gulf widens between my complacent Western preconceptions of Thailand and the everyday reality for queer Thais. I knew that Bangkok was a leading centre for gender-affirming surgery, that Buddhist scripture was free of anti-gay dogma, that trans "Kathoey" performers were an accepted part of Thai culture, that there was gay representation in TV and film.

Parkers tells me that the truth is rather more complicated. "Kathoey" performers, he tells me, are frequently ostracised despite their high profile and often struggle with feelings of shame, as if they are somehow deserving of the hostility they face. Some senior Buddhist monks have been vocal opponents of gay rights, even citing karma as an explanation for a LGBTQ+ child in a family. Parkers sees queer TV shows as more of a kind of fetishised entertainment for young women, rather than made for or by the gay community.

A "Kathoey" trans performer in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Angsumalin has seen the impact of homophobia with her own eyes. When she was younger, she had a close friend whose parents not only refused to accept his homosexuality, but even took him to a doctor to try and "cure" him. He suffered terribly with depression but found acceptance in his friend and in her own, more understanding parents. Years later, these experiences would equip her to give her son the support she knew he needed. He is lucky to have her. Whereas Parkers has been able to find kindred spirits and a whole community among his generation, Angsumalin struggled with her attempts to unite parents of LGBTQ+ youth. She thinks it's because people are too afraid to stand out, even in 2023.

Ultimately, Parkers says, it goes back to education, to the very narrow, conservative way in which sexuality and relationships are taught: one that creates an environment in which anything nontraditional is completely off the table for discussion. This isn't unique to Thailand. Across the border in Cambodia, I meet a group of people determined to spread their message and make things better for queer youth across the country.

Lyhuor, Cambodia

Lyhuor wears a smile that seems to radiate from within himself. It's the smile of someone whose life has genuinely transformed, from an isolated childhood in rural Cambodia to a place where he has truly found himself, and a group of friends and allies supporting him on every step of his journey.

When he was growing up, Lyhuor had never heard of a trans person. With no frames of reference, no role models, and no access to LGBTQ+ resources, he felt completely alone. By chance, he heard about a new drop-in centre in Siem Reap. When he visited, it was the first time he had even seen the letters LGBTQIA spelled out and explained in Khmer. This was the moment he finally knew his own identity, and that far from being alone, there was a whole community that understood and championed him.

The centre is hosted by an NGO called, appropriately, A Place To Be Yourself. Here, Lyhuor undoubtedly is. It is almost impossible to imagine him as the lonely, withdrawn person he used to be as he beams his way through our photoshoot and chats excitedly about how much the group has done for him. I feel sure the reverse is also true.

Jason Argenta in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Founded by Jason Argenta, who fell in love with Cambodia on his travels and settled in Siem Reap, A Place To Be Yourself provided a welcoming space for queer Cambodians and seeks through projects and collaborations to improve the quality of education around LGBTQ+ issues.

In a similar way to Thailand, a widespread lack of knowledge combined with very traditional expectations of the family unit present serious barriers to the queer community in Cambodia. But Jason speaks warmly and with optimism about his experiences with Khmer people. He is met, he tells me, with an openness to these new ideas that he didn't always find in his native Australia, where an anti-gay bias can be very rooted in the identity of conservative Christians.

Part of the challenge in Cambodia is navigating a language that has not evolved to be inclusive of nontraditional sexual orientations or gender identities. For the whole LGBTQ+ spectrum, there is only one word, meaning 'gay,' and it is generally used pejoratively, though parts of the community are making tentative attempts to reclaim it. To help redress the balance, the team at A Place To Be Yourself has produced a guide to queer identities and terms, written, for the first time, entirely in Khmer. Lyhuor's story alone has shown how something so apparently simple can have a transformative effect on a young person's life.

During my visit to the centre I sit down with Sivat (above left) and best friends Elo and Rada. Elo and Rada used to volunteer here and still visit often. They both agree to speak to me despite some shyness about their English skills. Elo tells me, with Rada's help, that her family are slowly coming to terms with her transition and that she's optimistic about the future despite how difficult things have been. I ask if they are using her new pronouns. She smiles in spite of herself. "No," she replies softly.

Sivat might be described as an accidental campaigner; a soft-spoken but fiercely intelligent and articulate young man who discovered A Place To Be Yourself through his boyfriend and now helps to run the centre. He tells me how social media is now connecting queer youth and expanding the conversation around LGBTQ+ issues, though some unhelpful stereotypes persist. More importantly, he describes a growing realisation that the community, rather than simply assuming the lower status society has decided for them, must start to unite and campaign proactively for the change it wishes to see.

It is clear, frustratingly, that this change will not happen on its own. The last few years tell a story of encouraging signs failing to translate into concrete legislation. In 2019, Cambodia accepted specific recommendations from the governments of seven countries to enshrine legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community, including anti-discrimination laws and legal recognition of gender change for trans people. As of 2023, none has been implemented on a national level. Some queer couples have managed to find local government officials with a more relaxed approach to the issue of marriage or adoption licences. Most are still waiting.

A Place To Be Yourself, Cambodia

Shortly after my stay in Cambodia, A Place To Be Yourself was one of the NGOs visited by Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. I was proud to see pictures of him in Siem Reap chatting with some of the group I had met just a week earlier.

His report highlights some of the many difficulties faced by LGBTQ+ people, particularly in the discrimination and sometimes violence that originates in the family sphere, a frustrating lack of data with which to analyse and understand these challenges, and the absence of legal recognitions for marginalised groups.

Fundamentally, though, he speaks warmly of a society "poised to make strides towards full integration of LGBT persons in all social sectors" and urges Cambodia's government to bolster these changes with legal protections.

My mind often returns to the time I spent with these remarkably courageous young people: to the irrepressible Lyhuor, the quietly determined Sivat, to Rada and Elo whose shyness evaporated the instant I lifted my camera, to the infectious energy of Parkers as he bounced through a Bangkok park with his brilliant mum.

Sometimes, governments need to lead their own people towards a more progressive future. In Thailand and Cambodia, I feel sure that the opposite is happening. There is a change already surging through society, and these brilliant young advocates are a part of it, making their voices heard and spreading a message of inclusion and positivity. I profoundly hope to see their spirit rewarded with the kind of legislation that will transform so many other queer lives.

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