“We’re not them. They’re not us,” cried Hour Pov, a 56-year-old transwoman. The sound of despair begs for love, warmth, and acceptance in a family full of strangers. Love, an element instinctive in a parent-to-child relationship, is rather a price Pov needs to pay.
Hour Pov grew up in northwestern province of Cambodia, Banteay Meanchey, and moved to the city of Battambang to pursue her career. Pov started her work as an LGBTQ+ advocate in 1992, joining various events and organizations to amplify her voice and the community she represents. Pov has also become one of the most influential figures in her community. She is better known as Mak Pov. Mak means mother. Every kid that needs a second home calls her mother. She has created a space for the kids, the adults, the people to freely express themselves. “I’m dedicated to this work until the last breath of my life,” said Pov.
Yet, her journey wasn’t a ride through gardens with rainbows and colorful flowers. It was about putting constant effort, being comfortable with uncertainties, holding the anger without lashing out, waiting for that one day you can be free from all types of limitations. She is like a tiny star with a far-reaching ambition, a star that carries with her the weight of burdens, a star that helps her community get represented, and a star that aims to shine bright. All of her work and her incessant hope to bring rights and freedom to the LGBTQ+ community has made her this country’s forbidden gem.
While battling the societal war of antiquated expectations and stereotypes, Pov also spent a lot of time battling the war within, the war with people nearest to her heart. From the moment she was born, she was assigned to be a boy and with that, comes stereotypical ideas of what it means to be a man. She was told by her parents to get married, to have kids, to be a man. As much as she has spent every minute defying this, she has decided to surrender. She surrendered to the impossibility of changing her elders’ minds. “They’re my gods. I’d rather lose to my gods. I’d find jobs, so I can feed them instead,” sulked Pov.
In Cambodia, there are certain things you do that means showing gratitude to your parents. “[One of them] is letting your parents decide who you’re going to marry,” said Pov. From a myriad of experiences, she witnessed transgender people choosing to marry based on the norms. And with that, they chose to fulfill their elders’ satisfaction at the expense of their own happiness. She watched those people spiral down to misery, only to fulfill someone else’s momentary joy.
Pov believes there are other ways to show gratitude to your parents. She has decided to move out after many years of living under the same roof. From then, she searched exhaustively for jobs, so she could make a living. She once worked in a salon without any prior experience or skills with a stipend enough to buy salt, soy sauce, and eggs to feed her family. As time progressed, she brought back home bigger paychecks, showing to her parents what she’s capable of.
Being in a close circle with Pov, Sun Chanra, 35-year-old transgender community volunteer at Battambang and a close friend of Pov, proves to her family in a similar way. As a community volunteer, she educates other LGBTQ+ members about HIV/AIDS and other STIs/STDs prevention as well as provides free blood tests and other materials. They both met because of their unwavering passion for LGBTQ+ rights and their willingness to accept and express themselves for who they truly are.
Fortunately for Chanra, growing up with a single mother has made it a fraction easier to deal with the family differential mindset about the LGBTQ+ community. Chanra’s mother puts a bigger emphasis on making a living. She is happy as long as Chanra knows how to feed herself and the family.
Living in a developing and a post-conflict country, the vast majority of our citizens prioritize ways they can make a living. Building a family after a devastating genocide means feeding them is a priority. Our literacy rate fell after many intellectual individuals were slaughtered during the regime; education on LGBTQ+ community and the other issues as well as the privilege to discuss, study, and understand weren’t offered to them. And that evolutionarily shapes the differences between parents and children mindsets on various societal issues.
Both Pov and Chanra chose to let their actions speak for itself. As they became successful, their family denial of their gender identity and sexual orientation grew silent. They still firmly believe that the family chain is unbreakable. Regardless, they will always have an unconditional love reserved for every child they’ve given birth to.
Yet, both of them continue to beg other families to never ever abandon their children. “Please don’t cut away your fate to be parents and child,” called Pov. They wish no child would have to leave their home because they can’t cross the hurdle of intergenerational mindsets. They wish love in the family isn’t a dream but a reality for everyone. They wish no one would have to hide because being themselves is a deficit.
This article is written by Rika Chan, a 1st generation participant of Story Corner 2020 which aims to break the stigma on LGBT+ through storytelling and the engagement of youths through dialogue and series of training on gay rights advocacy and basic journalism. Story Corner 2020 is hosted by Buzz Talk Cambodia.