Ten years after becoming one of Cambodia's most famous lesbians,
Pum Eth faces life without her partner
This March, Pum Eth spent her 10-year
wedding anniversary alone.
left: Eth and Sokha at home in 1995. right: Eth, standing with her adopted daughter, holds a wedding a picture.
One of Cambodia's most famous lesbians, Eth
now has only a few tattered photographs and homemade karaoke tapes to remind her
of her partner, Khav Sokha, who died two years ago.
"It is difficult for
me to think about," Eth said, referring to the couple's 10-year landmark. "If
people mention Sokha, I always start to cry."
Eth can still remember the
exact date and time - December 15, 2002 at 9 a.m. - that robbers attacked Sokha
for her moto, shooting her once in the stomach and once in the
After hearing the news, Eth rushed to Calmette Hospital to stand
vigil over her spouse's bed. One day and one night later, Sokha's body gave
"I started to cry and I threw my telephone on the ground," Eth said.
"I was devastated."
Sokha's death ended seven years of happy marriage,
during which the two were widely accepted in their Prek Hau village
"When Sokha died, it was like the whole village died," said
Phorn Chhel, a neighbor. "Everyone respected her and treated her like a
Despite Sokha's local acclaim, Eth never planned to marry a woman.
She met Sokha - a moto taxi driver-turned-medicine woman - while receiving
treatments for chronic illness.
Sokha cured her pain and fell in
"I had no idea she wanted to marry me," Eth said. "I found out when
she came with fruit for the engagement ceremony."
Eth's mother, Som Eye,
had already given her blessing
"I had never heard of a woman marrying a
woman," she said, "but I felt that Sokha could provide a good life for my
According to law, marriage between same-sex partners is
prohibited, but Sokha received permission from local authorities because she
already had three children from a marriage that ended in divorce. If this were
not the case, officials said Sokha and Eth couldn't be wed because they wouldn't
be able to reproduce.
Though Eth said she was never madly in love with
Sokha, she agreed to the union because she respected and cared for her
Sokha was more passionate. She began dressing like a man as
soon as she could speak and always enjoyed the company of pretty girls, said her
mother, Kak Yen.
"Sokha especially liked Cambodian-Chinese girls with
light skin, but had many different kinds of girlfriends," Yen said. "Even though
she never flirted, the girls always followed Sokha."
Her exploits often
ended in dramatics, with former girlfriends fighting each other for Sokha's
affections and even threatening suicide when she broke up with them.
forced her daughter to marry a man, but when he took another wife, Sokha went
back to her old ways.
"Sokha was happy her husband took another wife, and
even gave the woman gifts," Yen said. "Then Sokha came to me and demanded I cut
her hair short so she could marry with a woman."
Not long after, Sokha
fell in love with Eth. Though Yen disapproved of the union, Sokha went ahead
with the engagement.
"She said, 'No problem, it's my money,'" Yen
Sokha and Eth wed in a flurry of media attention. Most
Cambodians were unfamiliar with the idea of a lesbian marriage, and many
Khmer-language publications criticized the two women, Eth said. Even after the
nuptials, journalists showed up at the newlyweds' house and snapped
But soon the novelty wore off, and the two settled into a
comfortable domestic life. Eth performed the duties of a typical Khmer wife,
while Sokha, the breadwinner, developed a reputation as an effective and caring
"People knew Sokha would come to help them, day or night, whether
they could pay or not," Chhel said. "Now that she's gone, many people have died
that could have been cured."
Though Sokha continued to have other
girlfriends, Eth said she never became jealous.
"She was kind to me and
always helped me to feel better," Eth said.
Since Sokha's death, Eth has
moved back to live with her mother in Kro Bao Ach Kok village and said her pain
has returned. Sometimes, when she misses her partner, Eth will listen to karaoke
tapes Sokha recorded of herself singing or watch her spouse's favorite
"I don't know if I'll ever want to marry again," she said. "If I
do, I don't care if it's a man or a woman. I just want someone to rely on."