Despite a lack of recognition within the wider LGBT community, Phnom Penh has a thriving scene of women who love women – you just need to know where to look for them
Chhoeurng “Tana” Rachana is rarely not online. Sitting in a rainbow-themed café underneath the offices of youth NGO CamASEAN where she works, the 28-year-old keeps her laptop open and phone lit up as she talks, while also stealing glances at the screens of a colleague.
Social media notifications ping incessantly. Half are from friends liking her new profile picture, which shows Tana and her girlfriend engaged in a mock fist fight. The other half are business: messages from a Facebook group of which Tana is an administrator.
The group, which has more than 11,000 members and receives new posts every couple of hours, is the most popular of a dozen online hangouts aimed at a tech-savvy generation of lesbians and trans-men (born biologically female but who identify as men) in Cambodia.
Tana scrolls down the feed, deleting the spam posts that regularly appear. A handful of posts are educational, advertising workshops and advice centres, but most are purely social: one woman has shared a video celebrating six years spent with her partner in Battambang, another has posted all the photos of her ex that she plans to delete off her phone. There’s a wealth of selfies, often with proclamations of heartbreak and phone numbers attached. “If they seem really sad, we message them to check they’re alright,” Tana says reassuringly.
As Phnom Penh’s 12th LGBT+ Pride gets into full swing this weekend, the perception remains that lesbians are a marginal community within a marginal community. A film night next Thursday at MetaHouse, which is screening three short films about lesbians in Cambodia, describes them as “isolated” from both heterosexual society and the gay community, while the week’s packed social calendar remains centred around Phnom Penh’s popular “divas and dudes” bars: Blue Chilli, Space Hair and Rainbow Bar.
“It’s difficult to find lesbians here, because they don’t go out,” Pride organizer Dirk De Graaff says of the imbalance. Others state it more categorically. In the introduction to Q, a new magazine that is launching in conjunction with Pride to “speak to” the LGBT+ community, editor Thongvan Sorel describes “native lesbians” as “all but invisible” and makes no further mention of women in the launch issue, which largely comprises hunky men in various states of undress.
Tana is far from invisible. She cuts her hair short and wears men’s clothes and chunky sandals, and uses male words to describe herself and her other “tomboy” friends, who also refer to themselves as “boy lesbians” or “toms” for short. And while her friends rarely frequent clubs, and never the gay bars that dominate Pride Week, she insists their identity is not something that exists solely online.
Scrolling down the Facebook page, Tana brings up photos from a weekly football match organised through the group. She compiles a partial list of popular hangouts: coffee shops, especially the city’s multiple branches of Milk Green Tea, and public spaces like the Wat Botum park, and the wide, windy expanses of Koh Pich. “But most lesbians, we know each other originally through Facebook,” she explains.
Last Wednesday afternoon, Tana and her girlfriend met up with their friends at an empty lot on Koh Pich. As the sun set, more young women pulled up on bikes and formed new groups along the square’s perimeter. Like Tana, most of them wore men’s clothes, and used male terms to refer to each other.
Short hair is so equated with sexuality in Cambodia that Tana described the process of coming out to her family by providing a chronology of the different lengths she cut her hair – first shoulder length, then chopped short when a longtime girlfriend dumped her.
She said she thought there were multiple reasons why lesbians were less prominent than the gay community in Cambodia. “Because lesbians don’t have such a high problem with HIV, we don’t think about it so much for Gay Pride,” she said, referring to the large amount of money ploughed into outreach within the MSM (men who have sex with men) community to promote preventative measures, testing and treatment. She added that the fact that women – both straight and gay – do not as a rule socialise in bars, also meant that their visibility remained low.
Over coffee last week, Collette O’Regan, an Irish expat who helped set up LGBT support organisation RoCK (Rainbow Community Kampuchea) in 2009, recalled the reaction of Blue Chilli’s manager the first time she arranged to bring a group of lesbians to the gay bar. The event had been pushed to early in the evening to accommodate them.
“He was saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it! I didn’t know they existed! There are so many in my bar, I’m so happy!’” recalled O’Regan, laughing. It was the same manager who had told her categorically that there were “no Cambodian lesbians, only foreigners like you” when she first moved to the country.
O’Regan said that while more women were now making the decision to come out, there was still “more diversity” within the gay men’s community, with women generally adopting very stereotypical male or female roles in their relationships.
At Koh Pich on Wednesday night, Tana described herself as a “boy lesbian”, while her friend Data, who sported a buzz cut and baggy denim shorts, identified as a “real man” and wanted to have sex realignment surgery. Tana’s girlfriend, a delicate 22-year-old sporting strappy gold sandals and a chipped French manicure, said that she had always had boyfriends until she met Tana, but now loved “tom” women only.
Away from the urban centres, gender identities remain even more firmly entrenched. “I think it’s impossible for a woman to love a woman. You need to have one partner who is husband, and one who is wife,” said 48-year-old Ouk Chanthy, a garment factory worker who began dressing like a man during the Khmer Rouge but only adopted a short hair cut three years ago. Thy uses male pronouns, but describes past relationships as “same sex”.
“I’ve had 43 partners in my life,” Thy said with pride, adding that they had all been with women who had previously been in relationships with men.
O’Regan said that she was initially surprised to discover that the local LGBT community presumed she was a trans-man because of her short hair and unfeminine clothes. After speaking to friends, she said, she has come to a simpler way of looking at things. “Maybe it’s just different here. Maybe they do have these multiple identities rolling alongside each other and all mixed up. It doesn’t really matter.”
PACKED SCHEDULE FOR ANNUAL LGBT CELEBRATIONS
Pride Week combines serious outreach work and education initiatives with a packed entertainment schedule from the city’s gay friendly bars and entertainment businesses. Several workshops are being run by CamASEAN on how to come out safely, how to prevent bullying and what legal rights the LGBT community should be aware of, while RoCK will be running its own programme of events for LGBT “RoCKers” who have travelled in from the provinces to participate in Pride week, many for the first time.
For those searching for a rainbow-hued weekend of fun, head to D-Club today for the No Secret party, or register to take part in Sunday’s tuk-tuk race – half scavenger hunt, half flamboyant float parade.
The festivities will continue throughout the week, with an opening party, fashion show and art exhibition at the new Strange Fruit Café on Monday (read the Post Weekend review on pg 14), a street fair on Friday outside Blue Chilli, and an all-day cool down next Sunday co-hosted by Arthur & Paul and Rambutan hotels. To keep up to date with the packed schedule, visit www.gaynewscambodia.com.
For Cambodian lesbians who subvert these categories, things can seem slightly confusing.
“It’s just a mix-up,” laughed Vinh Dany, a 33-year-old researcher who says she has discovered at least 30 words used to describe same sex relationships in Cambodia. Dany said she was unusual in her relationship, in that both her and her partner, who are both Cambodian but met in America, are very feminine.
Dany identifies the younger generation of lesbian women and trans-men as a force unto themselves.
“They use all these new English words like ‘tom’ because they think it’s cool and modern,” she said. “And I think they don’t really commit to their relationships.”
Dany said she believed, contrary to popular perceptions, that it was women who were most open about their sexuality in Cambodia.
“I see more women out than men,” she insisted, explaining that it was a question of opportunity cost: men have more freedom of movement, including the opportunity to get married and carry on with their secret life outside the home, while women did not.
“Sometimes I feel angry with [married] gay men. They’re destroying another woman’s life,” she said.
On Koh Pich, Tana countered that she thought it still probable that more men were open with their sexuality than women, but that numbers were closing. As they did, she said, she was doing her best to ensure that the Face-book group remained a safe starting point for its young members.
“A lesbian couple just chatted me asking if I was an admin,” she explained, glancing down at her phone. “They want me to block someone on the group who knows them in real life because they don’t want their story told to the family.”
Tana said that there were still many challenges facing same sex lovers in Cambodia: bullying, workplace discrimination and family rejection, all of which she had herself experienced.
But as more motorbikes pulled up to the railings, her friend Data expressed pride in what they were achieving.
“We are better than the old generation of LGBT,” Data said confidently. “They still hide their identities because they are afraid to make their family unhappy. Me, I am just trying to tell to people that I love a girl.”