Forty-two-year-old Srey Champa sits on a stone bench by Phnom Penh’s famous riverside, just as she does every Friday evening. Her bag is full of condoms and her make-up is just right – not too heavy and not too light, for, as she says, she’s “not a teenager anymore”.
Nearby, middle aged white men with faces reddened by the sun prowl around like vultures stalking their prey. On any other night, the veteran transgender sex worker might have been among their targets. But tonight the only thing she will be offering is advice and condoms to her fellow sex workers in her capacity as a safe sex educator for a local NGO called Women’s Network for Unity.
Eighteen-year-old Seila comes by to see her. They greet with a hug and, after a quick catch-up, Champa reminds the younger woman to use protection. “She’s working tonight, so I know she doesn’t have much time to talk,” she explains. Soon, others begin to trickle by. Many of them are boys, some as young as 15, and Champa’s condoms quickly disappear into their pockets.
“Maybe I will visit an old client of mine,” she tells her entourage before they disperse. “At my age, I am lucky there are still people who want to pay me for sex,” she laughs.
As she gets up to say goodbye, Champa moves with the grace and poise of an Apsara dancer, the Cambodian equivalent of a ballerina. There is little in her demeanour that hints of her now distant past, but this sex worker-cum-activist was once Cambodia’s first – and possibly only – openly transgender boxer.
It was, however, a vocation she was forced to abandon 17 years ago after overt discrimination from fellow boxers and the industry as a whole made it impossible to continue. Hers is the sort of story that reads like the plot of a novel; full of twists and turns and examples of human cruelty and kindness.
Shackled and beaten
“I already knew I was a girl when I was five years old,” she explains as we sit in a café in the capital. “When I began dressing up as one, I was seriously discriminated against by the members of my family. They handcuffed me and put shackles on my legs. Most of the time I wasn’t able to leave the house or even eat my meals with them.”
Her mother was never abusive, she explains, but her father and older brother thought of her as a “freak” and would beat her whenever she behaved as the girl she felt was trapped inside her boy’s body. As she grew older, the violence she endured drove her further from home and eventually, at the age of 16, into the boxing ring.
“I ran away from home and after wandering about I ended up at the Olympic Stadium,” she explains. “There, I started to learn boxing, becoming stronger and stronger every day. When I went back home one day and my older brother started to hit me again, I was strong enough to protect myself and I knocked him out. Then I ran away from home for good.”
For six years during the early 1990s, the Olympic Stadium became Champa’s home – and the centre of her world. She had been steadily improving and was asked to join the squad of professional boxers based at the facility. By the time she turned 20, she held a black belt, denoting the highest degree of competence in the discipline, and had won several competitions in Cambodia and Thailand.
She may have been as fast and strong as any of the others, but she faced verbal and physical abuse on a daily basis for the way she dressed and behaved outside of the ring.
“I was a boxer but I was also a transgender person. I couldn’t control my behaviour, it comes naturally to me. It is who I am,” she explains.
“I used to have long hair back then. They said I am neither a woman nor a man and therefore I am not human,” she remembers. She hesitates, then explains: “They forcefully undressed me on a few occasions because they said they wanted to check if I am a boy or a girl.”
“They made fun of me and used to say ‘Kteury [gay], I won’t let you win again.”
Champa would fight back with humour, asking them: “What’s wrong with you? I am also human. If you are a real man, why can’t you win against me?”
“I was really good, you know,” she says. “But one day they put a gun to my head because of who I am. It was the last straw for me and I quit.”
Falling apart and coming together
That was in 1999. And since then, Champa has only used her boxing skills when those buying sex from her have turned violent. “A few times some clients of mine were trying to rape me or rob me, but they couldn’t because I was so strong and knew how to defend myself. In the end, they were the ones running away,” she says, contentedly.
But Champa wasn’t able to protect herself from all of the dangers of her trade. She was diagnosed with HIV 12 years ago. At her lowest point, feeling rejected by everyone and aware that her condition would only increase the discrimination she faced, she tried to commit suicide.
Since then, however, her life has taken a turn for the better. Her medication means that she is able to live more or less normally. And when her mother heard about the suicide attempt, she went looking for her. The two have now reunited and live together in Champa’s house.
Today, Champa’s mother is preparing breakfast for her as she gets ready to attend a party. The party is being thrown by a friend of Champa’s who is homosexual and wants to honour her mother for being so supportive. “She wants to celebrate her mother’s support for who she is,” Champa explains. “Our families’ acceptance is really important for our happiness.”
Champa rides her motorbike to the main Phnom Penh ferry, where Meas Borey, her boyfriend of two years, is waiting for her. They take the ferry to the other side of the river, where the city’s concrete is replaced by the long grass, palm trees and stilt houses of the countryside.
At the party, Champa meets her closest friends, many of whom are members of Cambodia’s LGBT community. They come from all walks of life. Among them are make-up artists, teachers and sex workers. They eat, drink and dance together, toasting “the mothers”.
“This is when I am most happy,” Champa explains in a break between songs. “When I feel that I am accepted by my family and friends; when I know I am supported and loved like a normal human being.”
Published in Al Jazeera Magazine on 29 January 2015.
Photos by Thomas Cristofoletti.