History of Pride and IDAHOTB in Cambodia
Pride celebrations are symbolic of LGBTIQ rights activism around the globe but the format of celebrations, including dates when they take place, varies in different countries. For Cambodia, Pride celebration started in 2003-2004 with the participation of predominantly Transgender women, gay men and Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) with an NGO agenda to educate and eradicate HIV/AIDS infection and transmission.
No matter how different people celebrate this event, the spirit of Pride is not drastically different. It is a platform bringing the LGBTIQ rainbow community visibility and sharing their voices for the betterment of their lives by showing their Pride in who they are and who they love with no fear and no shame.
In 2009, NGOs/CSOs and some business owners celebrated “Pride Week” the whole week of 17th May in parallel with the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOTB), a global celebration of the landmark decision by the World Health Organization (WHO) to remove homosexuality from its of mental disorders. At that time, some lesbians and transgender men were brave and enthusiastic enough to participate, express, and explore their sexualities and gender identities with other marginalised groups such as transgender women, gay men, and MSM. That was the start of the discussion of the terms LGBTIQ and the personal experiences of Cambodian rainbow communities.
Pride Week and IDAHOTB celebrations are intended to create a safe space for expressing, connecting, building solidarity, and learning from each other about sexualities and identities from various activities such as workshops, policy dialogue, HIV testing, documentary film screenings, art performances, tuk-tuk parades, a community day of public service, and a Buddhist blessing. This has become a ritual for the next decade.
The journeys of Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK)
After Pride and IDAHOTB 2009, the year also marked the start of Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK) as a volunteer group that became a registered NGO with the Ministry of Interior in 2014. As the only registered Cambodian LGBT-led organisation, RoCK envisions Cambodia to be a happy place where LGBTIQ citizens can be who they are and live their lives with full acceptance and protection from all parts of society.
However, LGBTIQ people are still lacking legal and policy protection from discrimination, harassment, and violence in Cambodia. For example, LGBTIQ individuals who experience discrimination and harassment in public settings and the workplace are vulnerable due to a lack of laws on anti-discrimination. LGBTIQ couples and families are not legally recognised and cannot access social security and protection schemes such as ID poor cards, tax exemption, insurance, pension due to the lack of marriage equality.
RoCK, partners, and allies continue to advocate with the government and other stakeholders in order to realise LGBTIQ legal protection while raising awareness in the general public to accept and respect LGBTIQ people.
Reflection of Pride and IDAHOTB 2021
In May 2021, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Cambodia celebrated Pride and IDAHOTB online.
RoCK along with Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR), Love is Diversity (LID), Micro Rainbow International Foundation (MRI), and the Reproductive Health Association Cambodia (RHAC) co-organised online events under the global theme “Resisting, Supporting, Healing” and worked with stakeholders and networks.
The supportive messages, participation, and actions of supporters contribute to the positive change of the LGBTIQ situation towards equality and equity.
In addition to this global theme, RoCK continued its own theme of “Warm Shelter” in order to change narratives to make Cambodia a place where everyone can play their part to build a warm shelter, especially during the world crisis we all are going through. Content was made on relevant issues and experiences from diverse voices and visibilities of the LGBTIQ community and supporters such as families, authorities, NGOs, businesses, academia, and artists weighed in on issues and experiences of both challenges and progress.
These positive changes were seen over interactions on social media platforms. RoCK, as the co-organisers and as a community, feel the rainbow shines brightly in Cambodia’s social media spaces from May to June alongside many parts of the globe. The supportive messages, participation, and actions of supporters contribute to the positive change of the LGBTIQ situation towards equality and equity. For example, NGOs/CSOs and the LGBTIQ community and networks work together to show solidarity through collective efforts on common causes, while managing to raise the specific issues and needs each group has been working on.
Senior government officials also made public statements showing their commitment to eliminate the discrimination against LGBTIQ people and employers and senior management staff shared their non-discriminatory policies at the workplace where LGBTIQ employees can work safely and fulfill their potential. Parents expressed their unconditional love and full acceptance of their LGBTIQ children as well as wish for others to respect them. Journalists indicated their professional ethics by using respectful language when writing articles or reporting about LGBTIQ related topics and academia promoted safe spaces and broader learning opportunities on sexuality and gender.
The general public also stepped in to intervene and urged people not to use hateful and disrespectful comments with LGBTIQ persons. Finally, the readiness and bravery of LGBTIQ individuals to share their personal experiences of self-determination to overcome a fear of rejection and discrimination, and live happy lives, committed to being good students, children, and citizens, help their families and communities.
A same-sex couple and farmers – Channa who is a lesbian and her partner is a transgender man from Tbong Kmom said, “I have been earning from harvesting the vegetables that I have grown, but the market is not very good lately so I have to sell in the village which could sustain my family during this hard time.”
She shared the challenge and happiness of her family life, which also reflects the experiences of other LGBTIQ community members who are farmers, artists, and civil servants all doing hard work with the responsibility of taking care of their parents and family.
No matter who they are, how they identify themselves and who they love, as human beings they have their families, their education, livelihoods, talents, skill and values. They are fulfilling their roles as citizens and responsibilities as caretakers, frontline medical workers, emergency relief workers, and community members. They are ready to take proactive steps to support themselves, their families, their communities, and their society during the crisis, and therefore, their needs for acceptance, respect, and protection, including legal marriage, are relevant and need attention.
Although the Pride and IDAHOTB celebrations this year are non-physical, people are keeping the spirit of self-love and community solidarity alive by actively working for the betterment of LGBTIQ human rights. It is evidence of the ripple effect that one individual can inspire another, one group can inspire another, and societal change can happen. One strong individual can do something but a strong group and community can do more but to have a strong individual, they need a supportive group and community, and to have a strong group and community, they need more strong individuals.
Supporting LGBTIQ rights is supporting human rights and it means not compromising. It is not a race between different groups but a marathon towards the fulfillment of human rights and solidarity for all in a harmonious society. LGBTIQ rights may not yet be a day-to-day topic to discuss over dinner or gatherings with friends, but they are becoming the topic that more people passionately want to talk about at their workplace and in public forums. Step by step, we are on our way to full respect, acceptance, and protection for LGBTIQ people at home and in public. The process and results of Pride and IDAHOTB 2021 were practical examples that we all can play our parts in contributing to Cambodian society as a warm shelter and harmonious place for all people who have diverse backgrounds, experiences, and identities.