This morning I had the good fortune of meeting with Dr. Glenn Miles. Glenn’s journey in Cambodia began more than 25 years ago when he worked in the camps just over the Thailand border. 200,000 Cambodians were living in this camp after the Khmer regime had ended and the Vietnamese entered Cambodia. Through the years, Glenn has worked with a number of different NGO agencies with a consistent focus on child protection. A number of years ago Glenn completed his Ph.D. with a focus on hearing from a child’s perspective the ramification of abuse and exploitation. It was clear from our conversation that Glenn’s heart beats for children who experience violence and oppression. Whether it be an issue of corporeal punishment in schools, domestic violence in the home, sexual abuse or exploitation and slavery, Glenn works at numerous levels of influence to advocate for systemic change.
I found it fascinating to hear him describe how Cambodia has changed in the time he has been connected to the country. In particular, he described a visible change in the general attitude and approach to parenting. In previous years, there was very little connection or nurturing of children. This sad reality is understandable when you consider that a generation of parents had never experienced being parented due to the trauma of war and the Pol Pot regime. People were numb and many suffered the effects of some degree of post-traumatic stress. As a new generation begins to have children and parent, however, one can see children engaging and interacting more with their parents.
Interpersonal violence continues to be a systemic issue. For a people who had lived through such trauma and torture, violence can seem to be an accepted reality. Glenn and I also talked about the implications of the nation’s general adherence to Buddhism with its inherent passivity and fatalism (in this particular expression of Buddhism). These factors combine to raise the need for education and awareness of the implications of such generally accepted violence.
Where the conversation became particularly interesting was when Glenn and I began to speak about his engagement with sexual minorities and the transgender community here in Cambodia and also in Thailand and India. The levels of complexity that he encounters as he tries to best understand the needs of individuals are staggering. The goal is to extend dignity and value and a sustainable future ~ but the questions of how to best do that are not so easily answered. Does a young man who was forced to work in a massage parlour since the age of 8 until 22 understand his sexual identity? Is he gay? Is he confused? Is he traumatized? Where does he go from here to find his identity, a place to belong, a relationship of love and intimacy, sustainable employment, a life outside of exploitation? Western questions of orientation and fluidity and causation seem pat and compartmentalized in the face of such sustained trauma.
In a land where sex tourism is a reality, who are the men who are having sex with underage boys? Are they pedophiles? Are they gay? In the western context we draw a very clear and necessary line between someone who is same-sex oriented and someone who is a pedophile. But what does that mean in a context like this, in a culture that has not created a hospitable space for same-sex oriented adults to live honest and authentic lives, where sexual mores differ? There are more questions than answers ….. and no simple answers it seems. The priority concern is the protection of children. But another essential priority is the extension of dignity and respect to those who are sexual minorities in this context. As I consider these complexities, it seems so far removed from the lives of my many partnered gay friends in North America.
And what about the lady-boy sex workers here and in other parts of south Asia? Are they transgender? Are they playing an expected role? It isn’t so simple to gain a clear answer. Glenn told me that Thailand is much more open and accepting about the reality of trans sex workers than Cambodia. He wonders if that would be a better climate than the current hiddenness of lady-boys here in Phnom Penh and Siem Riep. Would it make the lives of these individuals easier? Would it enable them to remain in the sex trade? In a difficult context, perhaps more will consider programs that will help them transition into fair trade employment situations. On the other hand, the potential violence and vulnerability of lady-boys in Cambodia is a great concern and perhaps more openness would create safer conditions for them. No easy simple answers here.
But thankfully, Glenn is a researcher and not afraid to look at things as they really are and do the hard work of listening, observing, asking and learning. A disconnected opinion from outside of this context isn’t of much help. But someone living incarnationally who is fearless in investigating the actual reality of gender and sexual minorities among those who are exploited and traumatized is a great treasure. Already since our meeting, Glenn has sent me his study from September 2011 entitled, “What about boys? An initial exploration of sexually exploited boys in Cambodia” and his work on the Masseur Boy research project. He also sent me an ethnography of sexualities in Cambodia produced by UNESCO. I look forward to reviewing them and posting them to our JustUs Community website when I return home.
I am humbled by the work that is going on here. I am grateful for the deep commitment and openness that I am encountering to truly extend dignity to gender and sexual minorities in the midst of seeking to understand all the complexities and to educate and raise awareness of issues that are harmful to minors and those who have been traumatized.
This is work that we need to get behind. We need to work in the window of time that we have to support those who know and understand this cultural context and who work towards the prevention of abuse and protection from exploitation while also creating generous and gracious space for gender and sexual minorities to feel safe, to heal (if they have been traumatized), and to move forward into a sustainable and life-giving future.
Later in the day I had the opportunity to visit the offices of both Chab Dai and First Step. I was moved by the visual evidence of their deep commitment to organizational excellence in the pursuit of justice for all as they work to end sexual slavery and exploitation. Their staff work incredibly hard with portfolios of projects that could easily demand twice the number of people. They are passionate, committed, and qualified social workers, counselors, project managers, and trainers. I hope the pictures will capture for you the critical work of these organizations.