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Stepping out

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Popy, a makeup artist and well-known movie personality, often dresses in drag for Khmer films.

An increasingly visible 'out' community emerges from Cambodia's nuanced sexual landscape

In Cambodia, as the saying goes in some circles, women are for babies and men are for fun.

"Men might have a wife and children, but they want to have sex for fun," said Meas Chanthan, a program assistant with the Urban Sector Group (USG) who does outreach to sex workers. "Men hear information from gay, transgender that if sex with wife not so fun, sex with man more fun. Then they try it and like it."

Such male sexual fluidity leads to a culture lacking the rigidly defined categories of many western societies and contributes to a significant amount of intra-gender experimentation, Chanthan said. But that doesn't mean that homosexual behavior isn't looked down upon.

For years, men seeking other men have been confined to dusky parks, private homes and squalid porn dens. While to a large extent this is still true, a small "out" community has begun to emerge in Phnom Penh.

Two bars specifically targeting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) population - Salt Lounge and Pink Dragon - opened in Phnom Penh this fall, and many report that Cambodian society has slowly become more accepting of this previously-hidden group.

But a variety of challenges confront any kind of nascent "gay community". Spread of HIV and the troublesome relationship between sex and money in many homosexual interactions are issues that continue to concern social workers and LGBT participants alike.

Even more challenging, malleable definitions of sexuality in Cambodia make any sort of "community" difficult to pinpoint. Men who have sex with men often don't identify as "gay" or even "bisexual". Transgender males generally consider themselves "female".

Rules governing sexuality are few and murky.

"[Ambiguity] is in human nature," said Sam Dara, 32, a peer leader with USG who identifies himself as gay but dates both men and women. "Men want to have sex with men, but we also want to have a girlfriend to show 'I am a man.'"

Divided by differences

There are many terms that describe alternative male sexualities - homosexual, queer, gay - but most aid workers in Cambodia have settled on one: MSM, men who have sex with men.

It fits. While westerners tend to associate sexual actions with a confined "sexual identity" (for example, "gay men" have sex only with men and often belong to a societal subgroup), Khmers don't adhere to such discrete classifications.

In Cambodia, sex has less to do with identity and more to do with behavior.

A Family Health International (FHI) study of 206 Phnom Penh MSM in 2000 found that only one man self-identified as "gay," while 22.8 percent reported homosexual behavior, 27.3 percent reported bisexual behavior and 19.7 percent self-identified as a "woman".

"Because of discrimination, men who have sex with men don't want to be identified as 'homosexual'," said Guy Morineau, a senior surveillance and evaluation officer for FHI. "But also some consider themselves straight."

Surveys put Phnom Penh's visible MSM community at around 1,500, but researchers agree the number of men who engage in sexual acts with other men is much higher.

Despite the reluctance to define sexuality, three main categories of MSM have emerged in Cambodian society. While the groups may not be as narrowly defined as many are in western countries, they still help organize and understand the parameters of Khmer sexuality.

Categories include: long-hair srey sros ("beautiful women"), men who dress, act and speak like women; short-hair srey sros, men with effeminate mannerisms who otherwise look like men; and short-hair "real men," who are often closeted and sleep with both men and women.

Relations among the groups are complicated. Long-hairs are highly visible and therefore experience the most discrimination - both from the general population and from other MSM.

When long-hairs do have relationships with other MSM, they are often kept secret.

"I have had the same boyfriend (a short-hair) for the last three years, and we want to move in together," said Serei Roath, 22, a beautician who works at Sammaki Market. "But his parents don't know he's MSM and neither of our parents know we're dating."

Short-hair srey sros are also a visible group, in some ways resembling the stereotypical "flamboyant" gay man in the west. They tend to look down on long-hairs and view themselves as distinct from the more womanly MSM.

"Long-hairs think 'I am a woman,' but we don't feel like this," Dara said. "When a long-hair is with a man, she calls him her 'husband;' when we are with a man, we call him our 'partner.'"

Within this group, there are stirrings of a gay male society recognizable to westerners.

"There is somewhat of a gay culture; they share common values," Morineau said. "They copy from western gay society but blend it with Apsara and Cambodian culture."

Yet in one respect short-hair srey sros defy western typing. A significant number in the study admitted to bisexual behavior, despite being classified by researchers as gay.

"My preference is to be with a strong man," Dara said. "But I have a lot of girlfriends and boyfriends, probably about half and half."

The third group of MSM, short-hair "real men," usually exhibit bisexual behavior, with more than 60 percent reporting sex with both genders. Such MSM engage in varying amounts of homosexual acts and their numbers are difficult to estimate since many are not permanent fixtures on the scene. Different MSM and social workers who spoke with the Post guessed that, due to the penchant for experimentation in Cambodian society, "hidden" men who at times seek out sex with other men could range from 10 to 50 percent of the general population.

Like many closeted MSM, "Sambath", 23, who requested anonymity, has a wife and young children. Although he professed attraction and love for his wife, he said he often engages in sex with men, sometimes for money and sometimes for fun.

"I like being with men and women," he said, "but I'm still a real man."

Many hidden short-hairs claim that sex with men is free from complications they associate with heterosexual intercourse. This mentality, similar to the "down-low" phenomenon among African Americans, centers around the idea that some men find it easier and more comfortable to have purely sexual interactions with men than with women.

"They like being with men because there's no worry about children," Dara said. "Also, Cambodian girls are more shy, so with men they can be more relaxed."

Waiting on my man

While providing MSM with sexually liberating experiences, this attitude also helps fuel a culture of casual intercourse that interweaves sex with money. In much of MSM society, there are no clear prostitutes and johns. Roles fluctuate.

"One day they sell sex. The next day they're buying sex," Morineau said. "It's more a way of life than a profession."

A 2004 study conducted by FHI estimated that over 60 percent of MSM sell sex either regularly or occasionally. For some, it is a necessity. Long-hairs in particular, because of their inherent "out" status, have trouble finding other work.

But many MSM reported that they sell sex either to pay for luxuries or to confirm their own desirability.

"We found in this most recent survey that selling sex is part of the game of power," Morineau said. "MSM like to sell sex to prove they're attractive ... [but] they also like to buy sex because it represents power, economic power and power over partners."

Bargaining usually begins at meeting places - bars, clubs, public parks - and prices may vary depending on the chemistry between the negotiators. Other expenses also come into play, like transportation and lodging. While long-hairs complete the encounter in their communal residences, public parks, guest houses, or hotels, closeted short-hairs often seek out more clandestine locations.

Private home or apartment owners, generally older MSM, rent out spaces to others in the short-hair MSM network. Sometimes the owners arrange a meeting themselves, serving as pimps. Other times, a client may meet a prospective partner on his own and then phone up to see if a room is free, said Phal Sophat, a men's health assistant with FHI.

Whatever way the encounter happens, it's sure to take place in a well-hidden spot. Rooms are available day and night.

To reach one such space near Wat Botum, clients must weave their way through the narrow corridors of an apartment cluster, in the daytime passing washer-women, steaming hot-pots, karaoke wafting from nearby windows - a typical scene from Cambodian life.

The small room is matter-of-fact: stark white walls, no windows, a heart-shaped mirror and a worn foam mat, where, two teenage boys lay entangled on a recent weekday morning. Though neither identified as a sex worker, both said they sometimes exchanged money for sex. They spoke on condition of anonymity.

The owner let them and a few friends stay in the room, they explained, which was why freshly scrubbed clothes lined the walls and dishes crusted with old food had started to pile up in the attached bathroom.

"See this," one of the boys said, pointing to Khmer letters spray-painted above the bed. "I did it. It means 'Be rich.'"

While the room may become the site of secret liaisons later in the day, for now it was just a place to hang out. There aren't that many recreational options for young MSM.

"It's hard to find places to go," one of the boys said. "So sometimes we have parties here. It's happy and friendly - a small place with a big heart."

He added that they often had such celebrations to welcome new MSM the owner wanted to introduce to regular customers.

Like MSM surveyed by FHI in 2004, he did not express concern about the role of money in sexual encounters.

Though power dynamics play out in such transactions, many MSM didn't think they always created an inequitable sexual situation, pointing out that what starts out as commercial sex may turn into a longer relationship.

Following a particularly memorable experience, the MSM selling sex may ask for a small gift instead of money.

"After the night together, we go to the market, have breakfast and my partner of the night would buy me a shirt or a pair of shoes," said one short-hair MSM surveyed. "This is common practice with the partners that we like. The ones who would buy a gift usually become regular partners after this encounter."

Sex and coffee

The casual nature of much MSM sex culture poses another threat even more daunting than the intertwining of sex with money. Surveys estimate that the rate of HIV infection in the MSM population is around 15 percent, more than five times the amount in the general populace.

Tearing common during anal sex makes receptive partners particularly susceptible to infection, and myths about transmission prompt many MSM not to wear condoms when sleeping with men. The 2000 study by FHI estimated that around 78 percent of MSM used condoms consistently when buying sex from women, while only 47 percent did so when buying sex from men.

"They believe that the HIV virus is contained in the womb of the woman, so it's not a problem," Chanthan said.

The state of HIV transmission in the MSM population has significant ramifications for Cambodia at large. Because MSM also interact sexually with women and sometimes street children, an infection crisis in this group could affect the surrounding community as well, Morineau said.

"The majority of MSM are also having sex with women," he said. "It's a big impact when you think about the dynamics of the HIV epidemic. It doesn't stay in one group - it's spreadable to women, other partners, the general population."

While many NGOs are working to educate at-risk MSM about HIV, staffers admit it's hard to control a group with such amorphous sexual boundaries.

It doesn't help, they say, that almost all the meeting places for MSM in Phnom Penh are sex-focused and operate under the radar. Aside from bars, clubs and parks, MSM meet in makeshift porn theaters disguised as coffee shops.

Several are tucked along Street 271. Outside one such establishment, an innocuous-looking stand offers coffee, coca-cola, and fresh coconut juice. But a back door leads to a dimly-lit room where about 40 men sit on plastic stools, watching heterosexual porn on two TV screens. Though tattered pieces of cloth block sunlight from the windows, they can't keep small beams from streaming through gaps in the plank walls.

A third screen plays a standard Khmer movie at high volume to provide a cover. The risqué films can be shut off quickly should there be any unexpected visitors.

Sipping their drinks, some men fix their eyes on the gyrating western figures, while others scan the room for potential partners. There are empty rooms in the back, but many men prefer a "quick touch" under a shared folding table, Sophat said.

A good number just use this as a meeting place, he said, and leave to have sex together, seldom with protection.

Condiment chic

Just off the riverfront, Salt Lounge seems miles away from 271's seamy coffee shops. Offering a sleek, minimalist interior, the bar opened in late November and aims to create a different kind of Cambodian MSM experience.

"We want it to be a positive space where gay people can meet and talk," said Moun Rontoeur, the bar's manager.

It's one of the first establishments to do so in recent memory. For years, MSM have lacked bars and clubs of their own, where they can enjoy themselves in a safe and harassment-free environment, he said.

And Salt has company.

Pink Dragon, a gay-friendly bar run through the NGO Kanhnha, opened in Boeung Keng Kang this October and works to draw members of Phnom Penh's MSM population through its relaxed environment and low prices.

Though Kha Sovannara, a member of Pink Dragon's volunteer staff, said he knew many MSM who wouldn't come to the bar for fear of being outed, he added that the country's tolerance had progressed greatly over the last few years.

"Maybe five years ago, it would have been impossible," to have two openly gay bars in Phnom Penh, he said. "But because of NGO intervention and because gays start to speak up more, there's improvement."

Still, a greater societal acceptance of MSM is a long way off, and will depend on challenges seemingly woven into the sexual interactions of Cambodian men and the way they define themselves.

In Cambodia, like many other countries, it may take a new acknowledgment of humanity.

"I am like this by nature and cannot change," said long-hair srey sros Roath. "I want to get married with a man, but I worry this dream can never come true. Today society does not recognize people like me."

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