Battambang, Cambodia. It is still light. Action occurs on the banks of the Sangker River, the one that, at that time of the year, lies in its riverbed and welcomes children and men who come for coolness. Water to the waist, they contemplate the dry season; they idle in a turbid world, they greet the bystanders walking on the bridge. Later, at the end of the afternoon, in the park on the East side of the river, dozens of women gather and, blending to the rythms of khmer and western songs, wiggle synchronously. Without paying attention to the ones slowing down around them, they follow the steps of the man or the woman in the front, whose movements, whatever the gender is, have the same calculated grace.
Darkness falls and, with her, the temperature, the blush and the masks. It is time for Touch to put on her real life. In front of the mirror, she applies her make-up: the foundation, the false eyelashes and, most of all, the lipstick. She adjusts her wig before placing it and checks the last details. Finally, she chooses her outfit: a skin-tight dress that will highlight her fake breasts. Around ten o'clock, when the streets are ready to welcome her, she joins her girlfriends.
A few hours earlier, Touch was sipping her coke with a straw, the eyes lightly underlined with khol. Her real hair is short. Purple reflections and immobilized strands. She floats more than she walks, one step just after the other, her hips adhering to the movement and offering a sense of ondulation. During the day, she doesn't want to be dressed as a woman. "It's not good for business." While some customers are part of the LGBT community, she knows that others are more conservative. From a distance, she has a manly silhouette; but as you move closer, she talks softly and blinks quickly to support her words. With these subtleties, Touch releases more feminity than all the women in the world. Do these gestures make her a woman? That would imply that feminity is the necessary condition of the feminine gender. Are appearance and charm all that makes a woman?
She shows us the large portrait hanging on the wall. That is her, wearing a traditional Khmer costume for women. A small and old picture lays a bit further, dating from the time when she was a "he". "He" looks at us maliciously. "He" already knows her real gender. Touch has known it since she was ten years old."It's my DNA... It' s a feeling that flows in my blood, in my soul, everywhere. I know I am a woman, I feel it."
The blue sky dilutes itself into an orange-yellow. At the edge of city, the caves of Sampeou spit out torrents of bats. They form dark clouds in the twilight, meandering across the sky as one, unique and beautiful in their slow dance amongst the stars.
It is dark. The few weak neons in the park allow the passerby to see the path and benches looming out of the darkness. Touch's second family is already there. Like her, her transgender friends wear short dresses or high-waisted shorts, wigs and eight-centimeters heels. They wait on the bench or walk proudly in the night, their chests inward and charming glances for passing strangers. They share the latest gossip, comment on their outfits, and observe the men walking around them, all with avid attention. I ask her if we can walk closer to the shops, on the other side of the road. Touch hesitates. She doesn't like to be in the full light. Anxious, she observes the sidewalk and all the men and women around, far from her universe. She knows that they will look at her without understanding her. Maybe they will even remind her how different she is with a glance or a word. We stay away from the shops. Later in her speech, the pain blends with her affirmations. She knows she is a woman, she knows it. Do we need the approbation of society to be a complete person? If, in the language and the soul, "no" prevails, in reality it is always easier to stay in the shadow.
The transgender community of Battambang, like any other in the world, suffers from the devastating statistics attached to their non-gender: violence, sexual aggressions, AIDS/HIV, addictions, poverty and, more generally, discrimination on every level. The list lengthens with the despair of its members. Tonight, these women confirm it but highlight another of their sorrows: their men.
"They come and go, come and go,... We know we will never have long relationships. They leave us to join real women." Beyond their speeches a tragedy appears: if their gender is constructed around their sexuality, love makes it a burden. Their lovers never stay and each breakup returns them to their fate. One of them would like to do chirurgy as soon as she has enough money. Touch sighs. "That won't change anything. Even with all these efforts, we will never be women. They will always leave us to start a family with another one."
Her sister is more masculin and Touch thinks she is lesbian. "It's harder for them... Women in Cambodia have to marry and stay with their family. The parents want them to have kids... Men can do what they want. They don't have to marry, they can leave the house... I can see their sorrow when they come to my hair salon..."
While Buddhism, widespread in the Cambodian culture, is tolerant with life's choices, the society is more conservative. The traditional family structure is the base of their daily life and not respecting it often leads to rejection from people. The laws are made to protect a certain idea of the family, ideas where a woman needs the protection of a man. This fixed structure jams transgender people in a life made of impasses and deceptions.
The friends are getting ready for the nightclub. Everybody refreshes their make-up, warms up, sprays perfume on their necks and between their legs. The passerbys watch them. After a little while, some of them keep walking, others stop and laugh with them.
Unified, they face together the destiny of transgenders. The know they are not men but also know they are not what society accepts as a woman. However, they are a key for understanding the gender. What are the roles that we assign to men and women, in Cambodia and around the world? What stays after manners, sexuality and their place inside the family? Are the others ready to accept the blurred barriers surrounding the gender? Most of all, can humans embrace their nature without losing their rights?
Touch, her face made up with foundation and pride, boldly faces the camera and repeats these words: "Give me my rights. I'm a human being above all."
It is time to dance. Another world, protected from ordinary judgements, wakes up. One day, maybe, they will be able to dance on the same tempo with their countrymen, man or woman. One day, they will maybe start their own family with a man who will accept who they are. Meanwhile, their family is their community, their days are the night, amongst the shadows.