Muern Sarun’s parents had turned down several offers of marriage when they asked a motorbike mechanic named Rous Savy to take their daughter’s hand.
This would be a fairly typical story about a Cambodian marriage, except that Rous Savy was not born male. He had long dressed like a man and referred to himself in male terms, but he was what is known in Cambodia as a “tom.” Gender and sexual orientation categories in Cambodia — as in much of Asia — don’t neatly line up with the terms used in the West. Some toms would probably identify as butch lesbians in the West, while others, like Rous, speak about always feeling “like a man” and would probably be considered trans men.
What makes their wedding even more remarkable is that it took place in 1993. Same-sex marriage was just beginning to become thinkable in the West; it was only in 2001 that the Netherlands would become the first country to grant same-sex marriages. Cambodia was not particularly advanced, to say the least, on human rights at the time. The country was just emerging from a period as a protectorate of the United Nations, which took control after the country had weathered three catastrophic years under the Khmer Rouge followed by a decade of occupation by Vietnam. The constitution adopted that year expressly banned same-sex marriage, and the country’s LGBT movement remains in its infancy to this day.