As a trans woman who is a Khmer traditional dancer, YOU Sarann faces endless discrimination. The 23-year-old Battambang native has dreamed of becoming a dancer since childhood, but many times, she’s wanted to give up.

Fortunately, Phare Ponleu Selpak provides Sarann with opportunities to learn Khmer dance in a tolerant environment on campus and elsewhere. Despite the challenges, Sarann refuses to give up on her passion and cherishes every step of the journey.

Phare Ponleu Selpak is committed to treating every person on campus fairly, respectfully, and with dignity. We strive to provide a secure environment free from harassment, bullying, and discrimination. Any form of violation directed at students, staff, volunteers, or others will not be tolerated and will be handled quickly and fairly, adhering to our anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies.

Sarann has many thoughts she’d like to share with her fellow LGBTQ+ community members. Let’s delve deeper into Sarann’s story and her experiences at Phare Ponleu Selpak as a transgender woman and as a traditional Khmer dancer.

Read Sarann’s experience as a trans woman and traditional Khmer dance student at Phare Ponleu Selpak

Photo credit: Juliette Deloron

Tell us about yourself

My name is YOU Saran, and I am 23 years old. I was born and live in Battambang Province. I am a trans woman, and I am a student at Phare Performing Arts School in Phare Ponleu Selpak, with a concentration on general Khmer traditional, classical, and Khol dance. 

I first started at Phare in December 2019, but I started during the COVID-19 pandemic. If we calculate the exact learning years, I have been learning for only three years. It generally takes four to five years to complete the dancing program, and male traditional dance students must take one of three exit exams: Khol, Folk, or Popular dance. There is no exception for a trans woman. 

I currently have no additional job apart from my studies because I want to focus on completing my vocational skills. After my dancing session at 5 p.m., I attend a circus class in addition to my contemporary dance class from 6 to 8 p.m.

Chhai Bunsorng, social worker at Phare Ponleu Selpak

Photo credit: supplied

When did you first come out?

I became aware of my true identity at around four or five years old. I felt a strong attraction to men and felt more sensuality around them than women. 

I first came out to my parents when I was in 12th grade, at 18 years old, and fortunately, they responded positively and accepted me for who I am. My family never cared about my gender and assured me that I was always their child in any circumstance. My mom even mentioned that she had noticed my true self while I was growing up.

Photo credit: supplied

What makes you proud of being a Khmer dancer?

I’m really proud of having an arts education in my province that offers the dance curriculum that I have always dreamed of learning. I no longer have to waste my time moving to Phnom Penh, the capital city. 

Honestly, I have always valued and supported the arts since I was little. Traditional arts, whether on TV or in person, have always inspired me greatly. After discovering Phare Ponleu Selpak, I was able to fulfill this dream.

Photo credit: supplied

What are some of your best memories of Phare?

During the pandemic, when the school was closed, I was so bored that I snuck into school with a friend to meet a dance teacher and discuss with the group how we could continue our art class if the COVID situation didn’t improve. At the time, I was at the fundamental level, so we gathered at school and secretly practiced the dance. If someone had found out at that time, we would have been in trouble.

Another memorable experience was being part of the Guinness World Record for the longest circus performance in the world. We performed for 24 hours, 10 minutes, and 30 seconds as part of a fundraiser for Phare and to help set a world record for Cambodia. 

I was one of the performers, and even though my performance time was at 4 a.m., I didn’t sleep the whole day because I had to help other performers with dressing and makeup. It was an exhausting but incredibly fun experience that I will never forget. Despite not having much experience, the teacher gave us a chance to perform with other professional artists, for which I was truly grateful.

Photo credit: Stefano Morrone

What are your greatest challenges as an LGBTQ+ individual?

The challenges are endless and always a hot topic to discuss for a transgender woman, and even worse for a traditional dancer. This is because the solutions and the voices we have shared don’t seem to resonate with the public, prompting them to be cautous and distant in how they treat us.

I was at the dance school, wearing my dance outfit, makeup, and jewelry, when I noticed people of all ages laughing and making jokes about me. I couldn’t help but wonder why they were laughing at me. Was it because of their lack of understanding or something else? I don’t want to jump to conclusions; perhaps it’s just their personal issue. 

However, I’m grateful to have a supportive family, especially my parents. They have been attending programs and workshops about the LGBTQ+ community and have become more open-minded. They are willing to listen to my experiences and what I’m going through. They are always proud of me for pursuing my dream while also enhancing my family’s reputation through the arts.

In public, due to my gender expression, people have judged and overlooked me, making me feel uneasy and unsure of how to fit into their society. I don’t know how they perceive people like me. When I dressed up as a dancer, there were mixed reactions—some people laughed or showed interest, but others asked disrespectful questions about the LGBTQ+ community. These experiences happen repeatedly, and it’s important that we take steps to raise awareness and encourage others to be mindful of their words and actions.

The primary challenges experienced by our local LGBTQ+ community are associated with sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC). Also, when members of the community come out, they experience discrimination from society, family, friends, and public figures around them. They express themselves through their clothing, behavior, and the like. They often receive negative opinions, leading them to hide in the closet rather than face criticism. 

I still face challenges from my relatives, friends, and the public, who often try to persuade me to conform to traditional gender norms. SOGIESC issues continue to be the greatest challenge for our society.

What message do you want to give to the community? 

Before deciding to pursue a career as a dancer while also being part of the LGBTQ+ community, I almost gave up on my dreams. However, a voice whispered in my ear, reminding me not to give up easily because I had worked so hard on this long journey.

What messages do you have for the LGBTQ+ community and allies?

Allies and straights, I understand that it may be complicated for some of you to accept something different due to societal norms and the fear of the unknown. I urge you to remain calm and open-minded and take the time to understand and listen to us. Get to know us better. 

For instance, I am a dancer. Please look beyond my gender and simply acknowledge me as a dancer. I’m just doing my job of expressing myself through the art of dance to provide you with visual entertainment. LGBTQ+ people are just as capable as straight people. Like in any community, there are good and bad individuals, so it’s important not to make assumptions about the entire community based on one person.

To my fellow LGBTQ+ lovers: I support and understand you completely because I am like you. Please don’t give up, and let’s support each other. I know it’s challenging to gain acceptance from everyone, but it starts with accepting and loving ourselves first. When we are strong physically and mentally, and when we know and believe in ourselves, work hard, and continue fighting, people will start to notice us. Sooner or later, people will accept us for who we are. Let’s start now and lead by example.

@phareponleuselpak Happy Belated Pride Month from Phare! 🌈 #pridemonth ♬ original sound - Phare Ponleu Selpak

Photo credit: Stefano Morrone

What would you want to say to the Phare community?

I am grateful to the school, teachers, and all the staff for their understanding, love, and support. They embrace and support me for who I am and also support other LGBTQ+ individuals on campus and beyond. 

Phare Ponleu Selpak feels like a second home to me, and I am always greeted with a warm smile. I appreciate the opportunities they provide for me to participate in new events and showcase my talents. During performances, they offer unwavering support, congratulate us, and encourage us to continue working hard in the arts, despite being a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Their messages and encouragement give me the strength to pursue my journey as a dance artist and as a trans woman at school.

Photo credit: Stefano Morrone

Anything else you want to add or say?

I am grateful to myself, my dance teacher, HANG Sela, and my friends, who have inspired and motivated me from the beginning and continue to do so today. 

My teacher told me that if this was my dream, I should not give up easily because time goes by fast. I should pursue it now before it’s too late and regret it later, and so should you.


Sarann fulfilled her dream of becoming a dancer at Phare Performing Art School in Phare Ponleu Selpak through art education and a welcoming environment. Despite facing challenges and discrimination, she continues to fight and has accomplished many amazing things for Cambodian society, while also playing a role in preserving Khmer traditional dance. 

At Phare Ponleu Selpak, every individual is treated with fairness, respect, and dignity. Art has no gender: individuals, regardless of their background, gender, religion, or the like, are welcome to enroll in the art education we offer at Phare Ponleu Selpak.

Donate and make a difference today: Through the power of arts and education, every contribution you make brings light and hope into the lives of Cambodian children and youth.


Chan Rattanakoudom works at Phare Ponleu Selpak
CHAN Rattanakoudom
Chan Rattanakoudom works as the Communications Assistant at Phare Ponleu Selpak and is an English Second Language Teacher. He dreams to be an English blog writer and wants to develop his communication skills. He loves to create and watch traveling videos in his free time besides reading.