Sopheap1 was born male but, at age 10, realized she identified as a girl. Because Sopheap’s parents feared other people’s responses, she wore boys’ clothing until age 17 “because I had to go to school and my parents didn’t like me wearing girls’ clothes.” Since then, Sopheap’s parents have supported her life as a woman. She, in turn, helps out in the family business.
She said: “I come from a poor family. We have a small house and don’t earn much. I couldn’t complete my schooling because of my parents’ lack of money, which made me quite sad. I consoled myself by thinking that if I just did good things, I would attract good things and good fortune.
“I could make people around me like and appreciate me, and that’s just what I did. I was always honest about myself. It was no secret that I wanted to be a girl. So, when I started dressing in girls’ clothes, it was a relief that my parents’ and friends’ reactions weren’t hurtful. In fact, Mom and Dad just kept reminding me to do good, to beware of others who don’t respect my life choices, and to look after my health.”
Her fellow villagers like her and consider her courteous, and Sopheap says she lives without too much discrimination. Being part of a community is important to Sopheap, and she talked about a recent day when she spent time with the people who are most important to her.
“I got up at 6 a.m., and the day started well because my lover called me. We spoke for half an hour, then I got busy helping Mom with her work; she owns a restaurant. Later in the morning, a SMARTgirl member came to collect me so I could have an HIV test. Afterward, I met up with some friends at the program club.”
Sopheap is glad to be part of the FHI 360 SMARTgirl program. She said, “I really like it because it gives me opportunities to get together with like-minded people, talk about sexual health and meet people.” Reaching more than 2,000 transgender individuals, the program offers sexually transmitted infection screening, HIV testing and other services.
She left the SMARTgirl program club “before midday so I could cook lunch for the family. We ate together, as we do every day. After cleaning up, I returned to the club. In the afternoon, we sang karaoke and chatted more about our health. After dinner, I enjoyed putting on makeup and getting ready for a night out with my transgender friends. We went dancing until late and I met someone who wanted to have sex. We went to a guest house and, after having to convince him to use a condom, we had sex.”
Occasionally, clients or boyfriends insult or pester her, but Sopheap avoids serious trouble by being friendly, gentle and kind. She dreams of finding a husband and growing her family restaurant so they can have a better quality of life. But for now, being accepted and appreciated gives her confidence to meet her daily challenges.
1 In this series, real names of program participants are not used.