Peit tii bey means third gender in Khmer, the language of Cambodia. It indicates all those who do not identify themselves with traditional gender roles. The photographer Frederic Schmidt has gone to Cambodia to see these people, he portrayed and listened to them – as they let him in their world of ladyboys.
Acceptance for the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) in the middle of western society is advancing more and more. One of the last highlights was the law passed in June 2015 for legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States. The LGBT community in Cambodia is still far apart from this kind of achievements though. Traditional thinking is rooted too deep in the minds of the Cambodian people, who mark down consider? acting out freedom of sexual orientation as shameful on family and country.
Life has not been easy for the Cambodian people for centuries. The country, very rich in economic and cultural terms until the 15th century, has not recovered yet from the tragic events of the past. The independence from France gained after profound oppression was followed by decades of civil wars. The Vietnam war as well as the genocide orchestrated under the dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge party in the 1970s let the Kingdom fall into ruin.
Widespread poverty in the country deeply affected education and culture. The Cambodian people, who are settled mainly in the rural part of the country, are very traditional and tend to be skeptic towards nonconformist thinking. Hence it is not a coincidence that the LGBT scene is concentrated in the cities, especially in the capital Phnom Penh. Here the LGBT hope for more acceptance than in the rural areas; often they flew from their family to find an opportunity in Phnom Penh to live as a ladyboy.
Speaking of ladyboys, one rarely gets around prostitution. The majority of ladyboys actually work as prostitutes for lack of alternative ways to make money. Because most of them are outcasted from family and cannot expect support from them, they often end up living in the streets. Here begins the vicious circle which makes their life so miserable: prostitution in Cambodia is omnipresent – and most of all illegal.
Even though to the buddhist belief, dominant through the country, does not belong any tradition against LGBT, and homosexuality per se is not considered a crime, ladyboys are socially excluded
Public opinion on prostitution considerably aggravate their condition. A problem is also that a ladyboy can rarely carry on the family line. The Cambodian social system is constituted of descendants providing for the aging family members, what exerts pressure especially on men.
Not only in private ladyboys are stigmatized. In public they are mistreated on every occasion. The police takes action against ladyboys with over-average severity, which is not surprising in a country where human rights abuses happen everyday. Because carrying a condom is considered enough to proof prostitution, many ladyboys never make use of them, contributing to the diffusion of HIV.
Even when in 2004 the former king Norodom Sihanouk sympathized in public with the legalization of same-sex marriage and affirmed that all humans no matter the sexual orientation, are equal in the eyes of god, there was no social change nor a law was passed. The fight of the ladyboys for personal freedom and acceptance still looks like a longterm one.
Photographer: Frederic Schmidt, Text Prolog: Dieu-Thanh Hoang
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