Taking advantage of social changes, a new project brings peer-led and
nonjudgmental advice and contacts to Cambodian men who love men
Photo by: Photo Supplied
Party goers get down Wednesday night at the launch party for M.Style, a network for MSM.
ON Wednesday night Gasolina rocked out at the launch party for M.Style, under the slogan ‘4 men who love men', a new initiative by Family Health International (FHI) and six local NGOs working on issues related to ‘men who have sex with men' in Cambodia, or ‘MSM'.
"We've worked with these men for many years," explains FHI associate director Caroline Francis. "After some time, however, it became apparent that there was a need to deconstruct the [old] program and rebrand it as something more fun and engaging," she says.
After a year of research and product development, M.Style was launched, mainly thanks to USAid funding. "It's the first time FHI is involved in branding a program," Francis said, "we've done this because it is what our customers identified as what they want".
M.Style is marketed as a concept in itself, to the extent that it is difficult to identify who is behind the project. Francis clarifies that while FHI is technically in charge, the local NGOs are really where most activities take place.
"There are approximately 20,000 self-identified MSM in Cambodia, of which around 9,000 live in Phnom Penh," says Francis. "But the actual number of MSM is unknown."
Part of the M.Style project, and the interactive website in particular, is to provide discreet help and advice to men who may not feel comfortable in "coming out" and don't know who to turn to.
WE’VE DONE THIS BECAUSE IT IS WHAT OUR CUSTOMERS IDENTIFIED AS WHAT THEY WANT.
By using visible, positive role models and creating a peer network, M.Style hopes to create a supportive community as well as take advantage of the social changes Cambodian society is undergoing to reduce the stigma associated with homosexuality in Cambodia.
Francis said that although MSM remain stigmatised and discriminated against in society, it is now easier to talk about the issue and articulate the needs of that particular community.
"Government leadership and research, as well as research by Khana, PSI and the National Aids Authority, as well as USAID, have contributed to creating a much more supportive and open environment," she said.
"It is important to recognise that many [men who have sex with men] would not necessarily recognise themselves as ‘gay' in Cambodia," says Francis. She explains how many aspire to get married eventually, and are essentially bisexual.
Whether this is an innate inclination or combined with societal pressures is unclear, but Meas Chanthorn, executive director of local partner CSSD, agrees that there are many MSM who get married, some of whom take specific "time off' to see their boyfriend during their marriage.
The implication is that "MSM" should be interpreted as a descriptive term, not necessarily an identity.
Many attendees at the party, whether homosexual or transgender, do nevertheless identify themselves as MSM, some even using the new term "M.Style". Phnom Penh residents Ly Makara, 21, and Keo Pongnarith, 23, seem undisturbed by the label. "We came here to have fun, join the program and feel comfortable," they say, "we want to know other MSM". Un Visai Sak, 21, chimes in, "This event is wonderful, there are so many M.Style people here".
Fundamentally, funding for the project is based on improving sexual health in the target group. Through the novel, re-branded approach, however, the M.Style message does not come across as purely educational. Instead, the whole project seems more aimed at creating a supportive community, with music and fashion playing an important part in attracting "customers".
Meas Chanthorn notes that "we are not working to promote MSM". When he first started out in the field some 10 years ago, he was met with hostility by many families who accused him of wanting to make their sons into MSM.
The M.Style aim, however, as put by Cindy, a well-known figure in the gay community, is "to support and educate MSM".
As many as 400 people attended the launch party at Gasolina. With a major downpour forcing everyone under cover, it definitely seemed like a big and enthusiastic crowd. Many were decked in M.Style T-shirts, provided free at the door. Food and plenty of drinks were on offer, setting the mood for a good night out. The party further included speeches, games and loud music, combined with rather raunchy dancing and further information about M.Style, all in a highly festive and friendly atmosphere.
Despite a successful launch party, organisers however agree that stigmatisation and discrimination remain problems for MSM. Yet, in the decade Meas Chanthorn has worked in the field, he has seen remarkable change.
"Slowly, by word of mouth, more came forward. Most were working as prostitutes.... We were friendly and respectful - for many of them it was the first time an ‘outsider' treated them with respect," he says.