Ra Sophal, 28, and Srey To, 25, call themselves MSM, but say others refer to them in a derogatory sense as kteuys.
On a balmy March evening in Sydney, Australia, tens of thousands of excited spectators
line the streets, watching thousands of energetic performers take part in a massive
Floats roll past carrying resplendent and scantily-clad dancers who strut their
stuff to blaring techno music. Stilt walkers dressed in drag wave to the crowd, and
lesbian marching bands walk alongside homosexual police. It is the annual gay and
lesbian Mardi Gras and Australia's gay community is celebrating with pride.
Such parades have grown increasingly common in the West as prejudice against homosexuals
has diminished in recent decades, yet things are very different in Cambodia.
Dr Song Ngak, men's health officer at Family Health International/Impact (FHI), says
it would be impossible to hold a Mardi Gras in Cambodia at the moment.
"It won't happen because Cambodian culture does not accept this attitude,"
Dr Ngak says. "So how can we have this kind of activity unless men who have
sex with men [MSM] build up their network and become a strong community?"
Far from the flamboyant gay pride celebrations held in other countries, reports on
the subject indicate that many Cambodians think the country simply does not have
any homosexual men or women at all.
An unreleased 1999 FHI report on male homosexuality states: "Many people strongly
deny the existence of men who have sex with men. Identification as MSM is perceived
to be un-Cambodian."
However FHI's report says that despite the absence of a gay culture, same-sex sexual
behavior is not a new phenomenon in Cambodia.
"MSM exist in Phnom Penh and are well organized," it states. "MSM
networks are a reality co-existing within the general population in a very discreet
manner without provocation or specific signs that would make the general population
Men who have sex with men, MSM, is the broad term used in Cambodia to describe male
homosexual behavior, but experts say the category contains many different types.
FHI's program manager Pratin Dharmarak says one obvious group are transgenders -
men who dress as women, have long hair, wear make-up and are known as 'lady boys'
or disparagingly as kteuys.
"MSM covers biological men, and how they present themselves to society could
be as kteuys," she says. However she points out such overt homosexuals are not
the whole picture - many of Cambodia's MSM dress as men and may have wives, but they
prefer sex with other men.
"The more hidden MSM group is highly stigmatized and they don't want to disclose
to society that their sexual prevalence is men," she says. "So a number
of them have sex with women and men."
Another category is male sex workers whose clients include both men and women. What
is clear is that very few MSM identify themselves as gay. According to FHI's 2000
draft report on the sexual behavior of MSM (see story page 7), only 0.1 percent of
participants reported a gay 'identity'; 22.8 percent reported homosexual behavior
and 27.3 percent bisexual behavior.
Twenty-eight year old 'Sophato' works as a researcher with an NGO in Phnom Penh.
He does not like the term 'gay'.
"I call myself MSM - it has a much better sound," says Sophato. He says
he became homosexual partly because it was hard to meet girls, so he spent much of
his time with other men.
"When I was 20 I thought having sex with men was stupid," he says. "But
when I was 24 I had one experience and thought, 'Oh this is not wrong, this is interesting'."
There is widespread agreement that it is difficult to calculate the number of MSM
accurately because they "hide their faces" to avoid discrimination.
Meas Chanthan from the Urban Sector Group (USG) has been working with transgender
men since 1999. He estimates that the total number of MSMs in Cambodia including
kteuys is between only 7-800.
However Tan Sear, an MSM who "sometimes wears men's clothes, sometimes women's,"
says the figure is much higher.
"We are not clear," he explains. "It is more than ten thousand, but
only a few hundred decide to show it in public."
Sophato agrees, saying that MSM are common in Phnom Penh, and that most are married.
"I think there are a lot [of MSM] - believe me," he says with a grin. "Rich
men, people with good reputations have families, but they are gay also. I don't think
they want to marry but they have to."
All the MSM and NGO staff the Post spoke to agree that discrimination against MSM
in the workplace, family and community is common. There is enormous pressure from
family and society to marry, which adds to the difficulties gay men face in trying
to hide their sexuality.
FHI's study shows that nearly 9 percent of men who identify themselves as having
sex with men are currently married.
"Families force MSM who act as real men to get married with women so they are
bisexual, but they are not happy," says FHI's Dr Ngak.
'Sophato' says it is impossible to be openly homosexual.
Sophato says his parents constantly ask why in his late twenties he has not yet married.
"I think if [my parents] knew they would be very shocked and upset, because
old people like them want babies from their son and to see their son have a future,"
he says. Although he has no desire to marry, family pressures may eventually force
him to take a wife.
"In this country you can't tell your family because the culture is very strong.
The community doesn't respect [MSM] and the government doesn't respect us,"
says Sophato. "It is not possible to be open.
"It is very hard and also very stressful because you have to cover up everything
from your family, society and neighbors," he continues, adding that 'lady boys'
have an even harder time than men who appear straight.
Despite dressing as a women, Ra Sophal, 28, describes himself as male and only has
sex with men. He too says life is very hard for cross-dressing MSM.
"Society hates MSM. They do not recognize us - they discriminate against us,"
Sophal says. "At the dancing restaurants the security guards won't let us in,
because they know we are gay. The police look down on us and beat us."
Police persecution of MSM is common, says Ing Soeurn, president of the Khmer Development
of Freedom Organization, a local NGO. That is particularly true for those who earn
a living as sex workers.
"They suffer discrimination [and] the authorities abuse their rights,"
he says. "For example they point guns at their buttocks or kick them or hit
He explains that male sex workers frequent the city's parks, clubs and the riverbank
to attract clients. There they are subject to threats and abuse from police and military
police who take their earnings.
"Discrimination is increasing against MSM. It has been going forever, it is
within the political regime and authorities put them outside society," says
Soeurn. "They cannot get jobs because people don't like them and they are poor."
Unemployment among MSM is certainly extremely high. FHI's 2000 study found that just
over half of respondents said they were jobless. Experts say their inability to find
a job forces many MSM into the sex industry. Although FHI's study was not aimed at
a particular category of MSM, over 80 percent of respondents reported that they sold
As well as meeting at the riverside, Phnom Penh's small network of MSM socialize
by gathering in groups of three of four at the houses of men who have managed to
escape the pressure to live with their families and have their own houses. However
Sophato says it is not easy to meet other men.
"There is no place to go to find boyfriends because there are no gay bars, and
men go out with friends or families and are very hard to contact," he explains.
Mao Kimrun, director of Men's Health Cambodia (MHC), a local NGO, says that if men
are rich they can go to bars and meet prospective partners.
"The Heart of Darkness and Martini Bar are popular for gay people, [who] go
there to find partners," Kimrun says. "If they do not have enough money
they can find sex workers in parks or at the riverside."
MHC runs the only center that provides free education on HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted
diseases for homosexual men. Funded by FHI, the Phnom Penh based project opened in
June this year. Around a dozen men visit the center each day.
Sophato says that MHC is important because it is the only place where gay and transgender
men can meet and support each other.
"This is the first window of opportunity for gay men to learn about HIV,"
Sophato says. "Gay men are far out from society."
FHI has worked since January 2001 with MSM in the HIV prevention field. The opening
of the MHC center coincides with a gradual acceptance of homosexuality by some sectors
of Cambodian society.
Additionally FHI's report on sexual behavior and HIV among MSM, which was quoted
earlier, will soon be made publicly available, more than two years after it was written.
FHI's Dharmarak says that understanding of the HIV epidemic and MSM has increased,
making the release of the report later this month 'timely'.
Such steps makes USG's Chanthan upbeat about the possibility of a gay pride march
in Phnom Penh within the next few years.
"I think in the future we will be like in Australia," he says. "Now
we have a few NGOs working with MSM and the government knows about transgenders.
When we have public events they do performances with musical instruments and dancing
and big speakers. I hope we will have a Mardi Gras in the future."