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Coming out in Phnom Penh

Weeklong LGBT Pride Festival celebrates the Kingdom’s homosexual culture

PHNOM Penh is hosting its seventh annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Festival until May 17, a weeklong event that celebrates LGBT culture and provides practical support for those in the gay community.

Over the past few years, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap have seen the opening of an increased number of gay bars, and last year’s festival was attended by 50 women from the provinces, perhaps showing that “open” gay culture is not only limited to the cities.

Cambodia, along with other predominantly Buddhist countries, enjoys a reputation for tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality.

In some ways gender and sexuality are more fluid here than in Western societies. There are considered to be three genders: male, female and khtuey. Generally speaking, khtuey refers to men with feminine characteristics who are also usually gay.

When people talk about Khmer culture being accepting of homosexuality, what they’re usually referring to is khtuey, which actually represents only a small section of the LGBT community.

When compared to other Asian countries, Cambodia has a less draconian stance. In January of this year, for example, Beijing authorities closed down the Mr Gay pageant an hour before it was due to start, confirming that China’s attitude towards the gay community is undecided at best.

Meanwhile, there hasn’t been any official opposition to the Kingdom’s Pride Festival, but ongoing “morality” crackdowns are sporadic and unpredictable, with the definition of immorality ever-changing.

Tolerant views of the LGBT community are not shared by everyone. The lack of public hostility and aggression toward LGBT people does not mean that homosexuality is widely accepted in Cambodia or that discrimination does not take other forms.

Homosexuality has never been illegal in Cambodia, but there are currently no laws protecting people against discrimination based on their sexual orientation, and ignorance can lead to victimisation of LGBT people by others.

“Sometimes people will say rude or hurtful things, but they don’t think they’re discriminating,” said Lang, a student in Phnom Penh.

Many believe that being gay is accepted in Khmer culture but only when it’s presented in a way that does not threaten the traditional family structure.

“My family don’t know I’m living with another woman,” said Heng, a bar worker.

“If they did I don’t think they would talk to me anymore.”

But a handful of activists in the LGBT community are working to educate the public about homosexuality. One of the festival organisers, Srorn Srun, is a project manager for Marie Stopes International, which offers vital sexual health services, including HIV/AIDS referrals and advocacy work for gay men.

“There needs to be more focus on the causes of HIV/AIDS in the gay population. In our advocacy work we try and educate people about what it is to be gay and encourage communities to be accepting,” says Srorn Srun.

Srorn Srun said the situation is particularly difficult for gay women because they keep their sexuality a secret and face more societal and family pressure to get married and follow convention. Lesbians and transgender people in particular lack support in areas that don’t affect gay men. For example, unlike men, who can marry and have gay relationships, it is very difficult for a married woman to have the same autonomy outside the home.

“I know a lot of gay men who are married. I don’t know any lesbians who are. Once they’re married there’s no opportunity for them to meet other lesbians,” said the owner of a gay bar in Phnom Penh.

Things are changing though, and March saw the inauguration of monthly women’s events at the Fly Lounge, which are proving to be a big success.

“There isn’t a space for women to meet and come together,” said Chariya Preap, the organiser of the monthly meetings.

Despite discrimination being a serious issue, there are members of the LGBT community who are accepted and supported by their families, and because of this, Srorn Srun remains optimistic about the future. “The generation born after 1980 has a different attitude to the older, more conservative generation. As this generation grows up I think tolerance and understanding will spread,” he said.

This year’s Pride Festival brings together a mix of events including film screenings, a book launch, Khmer-language workshops, parties and a beach trip. The closing party on May 17 will coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia. A complete schedule of events can be found online at phnompenhpride.blogspot.com.

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