Gay men in Cambodia rarely have to be faced with direct hostilities on the part of their fellow-citizens, but are more often pressurised by their own family into complying with social conventions, most of the time by marrying a person of the opposite sex and starting a family. They often tend to conceal their identity but some simply cannot hold back their femininity. What type of life did they lead under the Khmer Rouge regime? How were they treated under the ideology of Democratic Kampuchea, which aimed at putting all Khmer people in a mould, destroying differences and imposing a morality and a way of life that resembled monastic life? Here are the stories of two survivors.
Status of gay men before the Khmer Rouge
Phong Tan, a Cambodian anthropologist who carried out for the UNESCO a study entitled “Ethnography of sexual relationships between men in Cambodia”, explains: “We cannot really say that love relationships between two people of the same sex were accepted by the Cambodian society [before the arrival of the Khmer Rouge to the power], but one-night stands between two gay men were tolerated”.
Sou Sotheavy, who is now in his late sixties, was rejected by his relatives when they discovered he had had a love affair with another boy. It was before the 1970s and he was only 14 years old then. He ended up having sex with foreigners in the streets of Phnom Penh so as to pay for his studies. “At that time, people did not approve of gay relationships. However, I have never been so much exposed to discrimination and threats of all sorts as when I lived under the Pol Pot regime”, he recalled.
Forced to masculinise themselves
Sotheavy had to abandon the idea of wearing a sarong, as he was forced by the Khmer Rouge to adopt trousers, a short haircut and more “manly” attitudes. Some of his gay friends, also living in the Takeo province, took too long to adjust to this new behaviour or got caught “red-handed”. The sentence did not take long to be proclaimed, and around ten gay couples were arrested and eliminated.
Sotheavy, who still bears the scars of forced labour in the fields, to which he was compelled “despite a frail feminine body”, reports: “The Khmer Rouge were aware of the existence of love between men but did not really understand how it worked sexually speaking… At the beginning of the regime, they launched an operation for the extermination of gay men, because they considered them not only as ‘useless’ individuals, but also as potentially detrimental to the revolution. This was a proper dictatorship. As soon as the ‘black pyjamas’ caught us moving or behaving in a feminine way, we were labelled as enemies of Angkar [the supreme organisation which was a façade for all the leaders of the Communist Party of Kampuchea] and condemned to die”.
Resorting to prostitution to get more rice
Despite the forced rigour of the Pol Pot regime, Sotheavy managed to sustain sexual relationships with other men. He openly confesses that most of them actually came from the Khmer Rouge ranks. Today, he claims to be unable to remember how many men he actually had sex with, but adds that he used to be ‘selective’. “I was only interested in those who could offer me some reward in exchange for this ‘service’. I did not have the choice, I had to provide food to my old mother. During these hard times, we had got back in touch with each other… I showed flexibility in front of the Khmer Rouge, and this attitude paid off in the end. Some of them showed me tenderness by offering me some rice in exchange for my company.”
Sou Sotheavy rapidly ended up bonding with the Khmer Rouge cadres who shared the same desire as him. He even admitted having introduced young Khmer Rouge soldiers to homosexual relationships. “Convincing them was easy. They were as terrified as the others to commit an act that Angkar would see as ‘immoral’. I explained to them that it was easier to conceal a relationship with another man than it was with a woman. In order to approach them, I used to start talking about this and that, the weather, nature… And little by little, I began fondling them so as to trigger desire in them”, Sotheavy explained, quite relaxed, and for whom little faraway bushes had become love nests over time.
The Khmer Rouge regime unwittingly encouraged homosexuality
The Khmer Rouge only acknowledged marriage as a valid union. Any extra-conjugal relationship was forbidden. Still, as pointed out by Phong Tan, “this regime nevertheless created an environment which encouraged homosexual relationships”. Women and men were separated in distinct camps and they were not allowed to communicate or even see each other”. Furthermore, “the Khmer Rouge were willing to reorganise the whole Cambodian society by destroying the pattern of the family unit and splitting people apart according to their gender. This triggered the development of sexual urges among people – and more particularly among young soldiers called up to the front – who needed to satisfy their urge and yielded to the temptation of intercourse with other men living in their camp, without Angkar noticing it whatsoever”.
Generally speaking, homosexuality only involved Khmer Rouge soldiers and “base people”, who enjoyed more leeway and were showed more respect than “new people” (who came from the cities and were consequently associated with the old regime and considered as enemies of Angkar). Sotha, a lesbian from Phnom Penh now going on her 60th birthday, managed to seduce Khmer Rouge women. Thanks to the protection they offered her, she escaped a certain death more than once. She remembers that “’new people’ used to live in fear and would never have dared hanging around with the Khmer Rouge, but we, ‘base people’, did as we liked!” Sotha, at that time, knew of her attraction towards women but had never heard about homosexuality before the Khmer Rouge regime.
“Once”, she recalls, “a woman from the village, whose relatives held positions in the supervisory Khmer Rouge staff, turned up and asked me to come and live with her on the sly. To avoid problems, I accepted her advances. The young Khmer Rouge living nearby never dared denouncing us.”
The policy of forced marriages
In March 1977, two hundred couples were married by force in Takeo. Sotheavy did not get away from the policy and was introduced to his wife, chosen by Angkar. There was no escaping the ceremony as it was a matter of life and death. That same night, he confessed his preference for men to his wife without wasting time, and told her she would be more like a sister to him. She showed understanding but told him she feared reprisals. As a matter of fact, the Khmer Rouge militias had received the order of spying on the new couples by sneaking under the bedroom of their stilt house to make sure they consummated the marriage.
“As I did not touch my wife the first night, the spies denounced us to the village chief. The latter warned me that if I did not honour my wife and procreated with her, I would be re-educated, or in other words killed. Hence, I complied and my wife became pregnant. We had a son together”, Sotheavy told in detail. They got divorced as soon as the regime fell.
After his marriage, doubts and rumours about his homosexuality faded, but Sotheavy did not renounce to his natural preferences. He kept seeing men both out of pleasure and necessity in order to get additional rice shares. This dangerous game eventually led him to be caught. He was sent to prison and may well have spent the last hours of his life if it had not been for the prison manager, called Som, who took him under his wing. “He loved me passionately, and helped me the whole time I was detained. At the end of 1978, we managed to escape to reach Vietnam but he was killed on the way there. I still grieve his death today…”, Sotheavy said quietly, his splendid eyes suddenly filled with tears.
Testifying against the Khmer Rouge and for homosexual rights
“I am willing to testify before the tribunal about the sufferings I went through under the Khmer Rouge regime and these murderous acts of madness. I am willing to talk about my fellow homosexual comrades who died because of the sole reason of their sexual orientation”, Sou Sotheavy claimed with determination. He says he is not afraid of the harsh criticism, not to say contempt that may erupt on the part of his peers if he testifies. He has already filed a complaint. “My testimony could also contribute to a change of mentalities and help Cambodians openly accept gay men.” Sotheavy, who continues prostituting himself despite his advanced age, does not feel any shame about opening up and talking about his difference. Being acknowledged for what you are and who you are is a struggle of a lifetime.
- Text: Bopha Chheang
- Source: Ka-set
- Date: 02-07-2008