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An empty anniversary

An empty anniversary

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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

neck.

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

out.

"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

community.

"When Sokha died, it was like the whole village died," said

Phorn Chhel, a neighbor. "Everyone respected her and treated her like a

man."

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

love.

"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

daughter."

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

wife-to-be.

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.

Yen

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

remembered.

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

pictures.

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

healer.

"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

movies.

"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."

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