Words: Eve Watling // Illustration: Natalie Phillips & Gabriel Decker
Chanthy’s one-room apartment is typical of a factory worker’s accommodation – small and sparse, the worn walls are brightened with posters of colourful studio portraits of smiling pop stars. A small TV sits on a table, the only luxury possession in sight. Like many other workers, Chanthy shares the tiny room in the Chu Puvorn suburb, a 30-minute, dusty drive from Phnom Penh.
However, while some women share with a friend or stranger to save money on rent, 48-year-old Chanthy lives with his girlfriend, a woman called Srey Met (like many lesbians with masculine dress in Cambodia, Chanthy prefers to be addressed using male pronouns).
Factories are the backbone of the Cambodian economy, and a massive 80% of the 600,000 garment workers are young women. Most have left the provinces for the urban outreaches of Phnom Penh. Although they have been touted by some as Cambodia’s emerging working class, the low wages and poor working conditions that are endemic in the industry have so far indicated that this social change is not exactly a uniformly positive one.
However, there is an overlooked upside to Cambodia’s industrial upheaval. On leaving their close-knit and often socially conservative villages for the sprawling apartment complexes on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, lesbian women like Chanthy have found a community that largely accepts them for who they are. Although Chanthy’s one room accommodation isn’t idyllic by any stretch, simply living with Srey Met would not have been possible if he had stayed at home.
“When my family found out I was gay, they didn’t like it and were disappointed. When I was living with them, they scolded me. Whenever I had a girlfriend, I moved out of home.” says Chanthy. “Everyone here knows about my relationship with Srey Met. There are a lot of same-sex relationships in the factory – maybe 50% of women here have had them,” he estimates.
Although this statistic sounds improbably high, a group of neighbours form around the door, listening in during the interview and nodding along. One neighbour even chips in, saying that although she is now married to a man, she also used to be in a live-in relationship with a woman.
The combination of economic freedom and a relax in traditional sexual mores in urban areas means that gay women finding love between the cracks in the industrial complex is nothing new. As far back as the mid-18th century, Chinese silk factory workers were living in complexes with other women, and openly proclaiming themselves as ‘tzu-shu nii’ (never to marry). In the Western world, the mass drafting of men to fight in World War II left factory work open to women. Similarly, this independence and female-orientated environment fostered lesbian networks, although they were still very much underground.
Collette O’Regan is the co-founder of Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK), an advocacy group for LGBT rights in Cambodia. In her work with RoCK, she has noticed factory life empowering gay women in their search for acceptance.
“Cambodian women are a lot more monitored and controlled than men. They’re constantly harassed by their mothers, asking them where they are. They aren’t really given much freedom with money, either,” she says. “Some working class women have already broken the mold by being successful economically. Garment factory workers migrate, and have a distance from their families. They’re earning money and sending it home, which gives them a little bit of power as their families depend on them.”
Although factory life is hard and poorly paid, home life for gay women in Cambodia can be even harder. “[Lesbian] women often get discovered at the point of an arranged marriage.” says O’Regan. “We have seen a lot of incidences where a woman’s phone is confiscated, all outside communication with friends has been cut off, and she’s been quickly forced to marry. Sometimes they are taken to the pagoda so the monks can try and make them straight with prayers. Some girls attempt suicide.”
“If they come out at home, they risk all of this, on top of being kicked out of the house. But in the factories, they also get to live together with their partners, as it’s normal to share houses. They have more freedom.”
Pheakdey also works for RoCK, reaching out to rural LGBT communities. “LGBT women get a lot of discrimination from their home communities. People tell them they are destroying their culture, and giving a bad image to their culture and community. I think it’s good when women move from their families because they can live on their own earnings,” she says. Although same-sex couples are not granted any official legal recognition in Cambodia, same-sex activity is legal. Though these relationships are common, Pheakdey says, parental interference can still sometimes be felt in the factories.
“When a woman’s parents find out about their same-sex relationship, they sometimes call the police, often saying that the butch woman is pretending to be a man in order to ‘cheat’ their daughters. Some even bribe the police. The police then arrest the masculine half of the couple, the woman who dresses like a man. The woman ‘pretending’ to be men often end up in Prey Sar prison, and RoCK often has to help them out.”
Although far more accepting than her home environment, Chanthy still experiences homophobia at the factory first-hand. “Even though there are many same-sex relationships at the factory, sometimes people from work tell me that it’s not good for our culture and that I should marry a man,” he says. Chanthy even claims that one factory refuses to hire women with short hair.
Economic and social factors mean that although the women are living together at the present their future is often uncertain. “I don’t have a clear idea of what my partner and [my] future will be like because I’m not sure how long we will be together,” says Chanthy. “Because we are in a same-sex relationship, we can’t have children, and I’m always scared my partner might change her mind and leave me. However, the number of openly LGBT people increases every day. I hope one day soon people will even call me 'Mr.' rather than 'Mrs.'” he adds, smiling.