“Many of my family have changed their minds about me now”

Sou Sotheavy was recently awarded the David Kato Vision and Voice Award in Germany for her work in advocating LGBT rights. The 74-year-old tells us about surviving the Khmer Rouge, living with HIV and her dreams for equality in Cambodia

Amanda Saxton
April 8, 2014
“Many of my family have changed their minds about me now”
Hard life: transgender activist Sou Sotheavy grew up with 15 siblings and ran away from her family at age 14, becoming a prostitute soon after

How did you feel being awarded the David Kato prize? 

I have always worked from my heart without thinking to be paid or so publicly recognised. It was a big surprise. After I got the prize many people were trying to call me. They were so surprised to see me win. It was a shock to Cambodia that the rest of the world could accept me. So the prize really changed some people’s minds.

How will you spend your prize money? 

It will go towards changing the law and helping transgender people who are in trouble. But the publicity from the prize was more important than the money.

How was your time in Germany?

There wasn’t any culture shock – I’ve already been to 28 countries, from Switzerland to Mexico to Hong Kong. But I don’t like eating that heavy food. The hotel was wondering why I was always just drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.

At the awards ceremony they normally only allow ten minutes for a speech, but they asked me to speak for one hour about my life and what I have done. Many were crying by the end, and I felt very moved by their compassion.

Tell us about your early life. 

I had a very hard time during the Pol Pot regime. They would punish me for being different, using rape and torture. This was very hurtful for my life and I will never forget it. Even though I have success now, I am still not 100% happy. My family life was very hard too, and I didn’t have a chance to go to school. Some of my relatives and other people didn’t think well of me because of my character. Many of my family have changed their minds about me now though – not 100%, but 50%.

What’s a typical day like for you now?

Twelve hours every day I’m doing social work. I’m always cycling around because I don’t have a big office. I actually prefer to serve the community in the community and to use money to directly help people instead of building offices. I also enjoy cycling along – I find it releases stress.

In each of eight provinces I have one director and one assistant. They are volunteers without a salary. Normally I hear about problems in bars or on the streets. Maybe a foreigner hit the girls in a bar, or something gets stolen on the street, or there’s fighting. As soon as I hear about this, no matter what time, I rush to help them. My latest mission is to focus on girls who are half boy [hermaphrodites]. Most of them are very discouraged and want to commit suicide. I’m working in Kratie with someone like this and am encouraging her to have an operation so she can have sex.

Who is Sou Sotheavy when she’s at home?

I have a secret boyfriend, who is only 24. I haven’t shown him to anyone. He’s divorced and has a little boy with him. I treat the boy like my son. If my boyfriend wants to leave me to get married and have a family with another woman, I’ll understand and support him. Our future is up to him.

I also have HIV but I don’t take any medicine. In Germany they tried to encourage me to take medicine but I don’t want to become dependent on it. India wanted to sponsor me with medication too, but I declined. I went to the hospital and the doctor said my health is strong enough for the time being. If I take the medicine I’m afraid I’ll get used to it and be unable to handle changes. I have heard some people have died from that.

What is your ultimate life goal?

I want the government to make a new law that allows LGBT people to marry and be accepted in the workplace. As long as I reach my goal of marriage and acceptance for LGBT people, I will die happy. This is my last goal. If I can reach it maybe all of the pain will go away. If not, I might die in pain.

Read more articles