Organisers of the fifth annual Cambodian Pride Festival say the five-day event celebrates the normalcy of the Kingdom’s gay and lesbian communities
A performer entertains patrons last month at Phnom Penh’s Blue Chilli bar.
On any night of the week, ostentatious displays of gender can be witnessed on stages in a number of girlie and lady-boy bars across Phnom Penh. Yet beyond these performative roles and the clandestine urban venues to which they are confined, it seems that discussions of sexuality, no less homosexuality, remain the stuff of taboo in Cambodian society. This week, however, a five-day-long festival aims to bring a more realistic and nuanced picture of gay and lesbian identity in Cambodia into the public domain.
Through an array of workshops, discussion forums, exhibitions and parties, the fifth Cambodian Pride Festival aims to enable gays and lesbians from across the country to express themselves, or as Pride organiser and artist Chat Pier Sath says, "talk about their sense of self and identity", in an uninhibited community forum.
"[The Pride festival] isn't about stereotypes. It's not really even about sex. It's about showing that gay people are intelligent and normal, that they are just people with different faces and colours who participate in society in the same jobs and social roles as everyone else," Chat Pier Sath said.
More than an isolated celebration of sexuality, then, the festival is part of an ongoing educational campaign for both the gay and broader community.
"This year, [Pride] is not only about a party but also about raising awareness within the community," fellow organiser Srun Srorn said. "We want people to open their minds and talk about themselves and really hope government and the Ministry of Health will start to think about the difficulties faced by gay and lesbian groups."
An active member of the gay community and employee of health organisation Marie Stopes International, Srun Srorn is well-versed in the difficulties Cambodian gays and lesbians confront, particularly those in regional Cambodia.
"In Phnom Penh, [gays and lesbians] can be more open about their sexuality, but in the provinces discrimination runs very deep," said Srun Srorn.
This year, [pride] is not only about a party but also about raising awareness within the community.
Through a rural outreach program sponsored by NGOs Marie Stopes, Men's Health Social Services and Bindauk Chatomuk, Srun Srorn has been working to engage isolated gay and lesbian individuals, often at risk from social and economic ostracisation.
Over the past two years, Srun Srorn has succeeded in establishing contact with over 300 lesbians from five provinces, around 70 of whom he hopes will attend Pride this year to connect for the first time with a national gay and lesbian community.
"It's amazing the number of lesbians I've met in the provinces," he said. "I think it will be a real surprise for them to come to Pride and see so many other gays and lesbians."
Yet Srun Srorn also remains realistic about the ability of lesbian women to embrace gay pride and make their sexuality public.
"A lot [of them] have said they won't come because they still don't want anyone to know," he said.
The conservative character of Cambodian society means that the barriers to social inclusion for lesbians are even more daunting than those faced by often alienated gay and lesbian individuals in the West.
"No NGOs run programs for lesbians like they do for gay men," explained a Cambodian organiser from the Women's National Unity who wishes to remain anonymous. "If women start to expose themselves, it's really difficult. They often have to leave their family as they're seen as giving them a very bad image, judged by society and considered undignified."
In this context, secrecy is often the safest option.
"I never talked to anyone about my relationship with another woman until it was over. Sometimes you feel stupid talking about it because you don't always know exactly what you want, and it takes time to understand your own sexuality. But it is also difficult to hide desire," she said.
This means that for Khmer lesbians, the kind of "double life" of same-sex relations or experimentation that is so often the reality and survival strategy of their gay counterparts is not an option.
"It's much more like pre-feminist times here," said expat Pride organiser and Voluntary Services Overseas volunteer Collette. "First, women have to fight for rights as women, and then for extra rights as lesbians."
Yet although there may be less room for overt statements of sexuality in traditional Cambodian society, it seems that so, too, for some this more reserved cultural paradigm may permit more scope for ambiguity in same-sex intimacy.
"On many levels, people don't really care about each other's sexuality [here], and we're allowed to be more physical with people of the same sex. A lot of people marry and have kids for social and economic reasons, but still quite easily have gay sex for pleasure," said Chat Pier Sath.
Grey area of sexuality
It is this grey area of sexual multiplicity that British Pride artist and organiser Alan Flux has tried to capture in his portraits, inspired by stories related by everyday Cambodian acquaintances.
"In England we're obsessed with labels, but here there's a lot less angst about sexuality. People might sleep with male friends sometimes or use sex to get what they want, but they would never call themselves gay," Flux said.
And for Flux, this less-definitive Cambodian paradigm is preferable.
"Pride here is not the gross parade that it is in England, which I felt completely alienated from. It's about being broad and inclusive," he said.
Pride runs from today through Sunday at various venues. For full program details, see: www.phnompenhpride.blogspot.com.