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Make no mistake: This is not a place to celebrate sexuality. This is a place for survival.
Transgender homosexuals inhabit the shadows of Khmer society. Though they’re emphatically proud of their lifestyles and sexuality, such proclamations might come out stilted or forebode some admittance of shame. Don’t tell my parents. Don’t use your real name. Don’t go home. Don’t.
Of the many narratives that have taken Beoung Kak 2’s homosexual residents into this fetid and cramped place, the story of a slight, curly-haired transgender named Srey Pisey seems emblematic. Pisey, gregarious and bright despite little formal education, has always had a secret inside her.
Pisey, now 28, was 13 when she realized she was different. Living in rural Kandal just outside Phnom Penh, she couldn’t stop the thought that she wasn’t right in this body, that she couldn’t relate to her family or anyone in her village. She felt alone. She felt scared. She said she knew she was supposed to be a woman, and the recognition was tortuous.
“I tried to kill myself twice when I was a child,” she said at home in Beoung Kak 2. “I took too much medication. I was very upset and disappointed that I was gay and my parents beat me and wanted me to go away from my home. I tried to change myself into a boy, but I couldn’t. Because, me as a woman, it’s natural.”
In 2002, Pisey’s parents disowned her and kicked her out, she said. So, without any skills, she came to Phnom Penh. She hasn’t been home since and says she misses her family every day though not sure what they would think of her now, a homosexual prostitute in Phnom Penh.
“I don’t know how to read,” Pisey said, echoing a theme in many stories here. “I don’t know how to write. I only know how to be a prostitute.”
Meanwhile, around 100 meters down the tracks, longtime resident Kaulap Kho sat inside her wooden shack rocking her 5-month-old son in a hammock. While she talked and her baby slept, Kho became angrier and angrier. This squat woman, with her husband, Tho, has lived here selling clams for 10 years. It has become their home. Where they want to raise their four children. But soon, she said, they’ll have to move back to the provinces to find work.
Kaulap’s profits selling clams have recently plunged 50 percent from $5 per day to $2.50, and the homosexuals, she spat, are to blame. Good Khmer folk don’t come to shops near such “sinful” people, she said. And so Kaulap broods as she rocks her baby, hatred in her eyes.
“These people are not the same as the general people; they talk and act very differently” said Meas Chanthan, executive director of Cambodia’s Corporation for Social Services and Development, one of Phnom Penh’s dozen non-governmental organizations that study and assist the country’s homosexual population. “They talk loudly, they scream and they’re not afraid of their neighbors.”
Meas continued, “These homosexuals think they’ve become isolated and that they have no one. They don’t like the general people either so they have no choice but to live together and so the homosexuals are so sad.”
Isolation seems an insurmountable and profound thing for some transgenders in Beoung Kak 2. At 9 a.m. on a recent Friday, while most residents here were already thinking about lunch, five transgender homosexuals slept inside their shack on a wooden floor. They had gotten back late the night before. No one had purchased them, and now they didn’t have enough money for rice.
Yet deep into midmorning, despite the light, the hunger, the noise spilling inside, the transgender homosexuals snuggled together, eyes closed: The rest of the world firmly outside.