DARA, an 18-year-old business student born to a wealthy Phnom Penh family, says he first realised he was bisexual as a young teenager, but he concedes that there were signs even before that.
“I did always like dressing up when I was little and stuff,” he said. “When I was going through puberty, around 14 or 15, I had no interest in girls. If I had a guy looking at me, I’d be more excited than having a girl looking at me.”
Although he has recently disclosed his sexuality to a few friends, most of whom are abroad, he still hasn’t told his family, and he’s not sure he ever will.
“I’m still thinking about it. I’m still also thinking about whether or not I should switch back to the right – well, this is not the wrong track, it’s just that, you know, sticking with nature and stuff,” he said. “I have considered running away sometimes, to escape those problems and troubles.”
He added: “Coming out here in Cambodia is something that is really hard to do because society is very reserved and conservative, so they’re not ready for us yet.”
Dara’s hesitation might seem puzzling to those participating in Cambodia’s Pride Week, a series of film screenings, panel discussions and parties – including drag shows – that kicks off today.
With calls to “put on your dancing shoes and paint Phnom Penh pink”, the programming seems to reflect a view that the Kingdom is, by and large, accepting.
But young Cambodians who identify as gay or bisexual said this past week that, in a society that is traditionally conservative, they are largely forced to navigate their sexualities in isolation, and experts say that this feeling is common.
“Social rejection is huge, as it is in the West. It’s huge here too,” said Kenneth Wilcox, who runs a free gay-youth support group in Phnom Penh.
“But at least in the West we have a slightly better chance of intermingling with the gay population, where here, that population is much more closeted, so getting that social support is very, very difficult.”
Rupert Abbott, director of programmes and development at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), said scant government attention to the plight of gays and lesbians is partially fuelling this problem.
“You have the government’s Human Rights Committee, which is responsible for assisting the government in its attempt to protect human rights, but the issue simply isn’t being discussed,” he said.
“There’s not very much information out there at all,” he added. “I don’t think anyone really knows what the general everyday situation is for the gay community in Cambodia, and I think that’s because they’ve been afraid to speak out.”
In 2004, King Norodom Sihanouk declared that he supported same-sex marriage, and that as “a liberal democracy”, Cambodia should allow “marriage between man and man ... or between woman and woman”.
However, Article 6 of the 1989 Law on Marriage and Family states that same-sex marriage is prohibited.
And the government’s policies and statements concerning homosexuality have been inconsistent, a point that was driven home in 2007 when Prime Minister Hun Sen announced, during a speech at a graduation ceremony, that his adopted daughter was a lesbian.
“I have my own problem: My adopted daughter has a wife,” the prime minister said. “Now I will ask the court to disown her from my family.”
He went on, though, to say that gays and lesbians should not be targets of discrimination.
“I urge parents of gays not to discriminate against them, and do not call them transvestites,” Hun Sen said.
Contacted for this article, officials from the Social Affairs Ministry instructed a reporter to submit questions in a letter. The Human Rights Committee could not be reached for comment.
Wilcox said that gays and lesbians from all socioeconomic backgrounds face challenges, albeit slightly different ones. Those from poor backgrounds tend to feel more pressure to start families of their own, whereas those from wealthy backgrounds are more concerned about protecting the reputations of their families, he said.
Sopheak, a 23-year-old student, is familiar with both sets of obstacles.
Born to a poor family in Kampong Cham province, he realised he was gay shortly after moving to Phnom Penh on a scholarship programme as a young teenager, where he lives with a well-to-do family.
Even in Phnom Penh, he has told only a few trusted friends.
“I don’t know anyone who has told their families; none of my friends have,” he said.
In both environments, he added, general lack of education about homosexuality discourages him from being more forthcoming.
“Most people think it is something against nature, but they don’t really know what it means,” he said. “They think it’s a choice, that people choose to become gay, choose to become a lesbian.… They think it’s just crazy, and ask, ‘Why do they do such crazy things?’”