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Cambodia’s LGBT Community Finds Its Voice With Q Magazine

Q Cambodia is the country's first print magazine geared toward the gay, lesbian and transgender community. Kristi Eaton for NBC News

PHNOM PENH: Cambodia, a country known for its abysmal human rights record and gender inequality, is now home to a print magazine geared toward the LGBT community and its allies. Q Cambodia, the country's first gay magazine, seeks to entertain, inform and bring more visibility to the community through interviews, stories and photos of both local Cambodians and foreigners, according to Sorel Thongvan, editor-in-chief of the magazine.

Thongvan, who was born in France to Khmer parents and lived in the United States and Cambodia, said he noticed something was missing within the LGBT community when he returned to Cambodia to live in 2012, so he decided to bridge that information gap with Q.

"I'm trying to reach as many people in the community as I can but getting people to talk openly turned out to be a lot more difficult that I'd imagine," said Thongvan, 55. "Even those who seemed to live their sexuality openly backed out of interviews as soon as I told them that their name and picture will be printed along with the interviews."

Sorel Thongvan (second from left) poses with Jean-Francois Cautain, Ambassador of the European Union to Cambodia (second from right), at the launch party for Thongvan's new magazine Q Cambodia, the country's first print magazine geared toward the lesbian, gay and transgender community. Photo courtesy of Jetemie Montessuis

Even members of Cambodia's "out" community still live a somewhat closeted life.

The country's main tourist cities like Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville have bars, hotels and spas geared toward gay individuals. In fact, the magazine's launch party took place at a hotel in Phnom Penh known for only allowing gay men inside. But for Cambodians, the experience of coming out can be far less friendly. Many are forced to marry at age 16 or 17, and those who come out may be sent to a traditional doctor who families believe can turn the child straight, said Srun Srorn, an LGBT activist who founded CamASEAN Youth's Future, a human rights organization.

"Economic pressure by family, especially the mother, has happened a lot," Srorn said, adding that parents sometimes stop paying for their child's schooling or take their motorcycles and bikes so they have no means of transportation when they come out. "Some families just send their LGBT children to live with their relatives or send to another country."

There have been at least three cases recently where police have arrested a same-sex partner at the behest of upset parents, Srorn said, and some companies and schools also have been known to kick out people who identify as LGBT.

A 2014 report found that while same-sex activities are not a criminal offence in Cambodia, "laws and policies are often silent on LGBT people and rights." Local authorities and police have reportedly used various laws to infringe on the community's rights, "including the forced separation of same-sex couples in response to parental demands," according to the report.

"Some families just send their LGBT children to live with their relatives or send to another country."

In 2007, Prime Minister Hun Sen came under fire for attempting to disown his adopted daughter because she is a lesbian, while at the same time urging his 13 million constituents to be more tolerant of the gay and lesbian community.

Following gay weddings in San Francisco in 2004, then-King Norodom Sihanouk said Cambodia should allow gay marriages and that transgender people should be accepted and treated well. Same-sex marriage is not legal in Cambodia, though officials in some of the country's provinces have allowed such marriages to take place. Srorn points to recent developments - such as the Ministry of Women's Affairs crafting a national plan to eliminate violence against women and children that includes lesbian, bisexual, and transgender language - as a sign of progress.

"In the West, the LGBT community has had to fight to gain rights and recognition, battles that still continue of course, but in Cambodia, there has been very little of that even though most people in the community that I know face the same fears of being fired, being kicked out of the house, being discriminated against," Thongvan said.

People get their photo taken at the launch party for Q Cambodia, the country's first print magazine geared toward the lesbian, gay and transgender community. Kristi Eaton for NBC News

He said he hopes parents and teachers will also start reading Q Cambodia, which stands for queer, a term Thongvan says he was called a lot when he first came out and wants to turn into something beautiful. Though the magazine is written in English, he hopes to translate the main articles into Khmer, the Cambodian language.

Vuthy Chan, 27, who attended the Q Cambodia's launch party, said although he regularly walks down the street in Phnom Penh holding hands with his boyfriend and has no trouble, he wants Cambodia to continue to become more accepting of the community, especially in rural areas.

"Gay people don't need to hide themselves," Chan said. "They need to be open."