Many countries have a Pride Day, some a Pride Week, Cambodia has a neverending Pride Festival…10 day of fun, but a little tiring…art, films, drag shows, parties, quizzes, a tuk-tuk race. I spent much of the festival dashing about distributing the CCHR Rainbow Krama (scarf) but the highlight for me was attending the Family Acceptance Workshop organized by Rainbow Kampuchea (RoCK) to mark the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) on 17 May.
RoCK is an organization with a great network of voluntary LGBT activists, led in part by the inspiring Srun Srorn, a leading activist in Cambodia. About 50 people were crammed cross legged into the room with a great mix of young to old LGBT people who had travelled to the capital for the event, visitors from NGOs in ASEAN countries also joined the day. The morning’s activities were led by a visiting group from Vietnam from the organization ICS who are based in Ho Chi Minh City. ICS came to share the approach used by their project: Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Three inspirational and emotional presentations were given by the Vietnamese groups. Firstly 2 mothers of young gay men spoke about their stories.
With interpretation going on between Khmer, Vietnamese and English, and despite the constant murmur from the crowd, participants were captivated by the stories. LGBT people share similar experiences of family acceptance and can relate to fellow stories, these were particularly emotional.
“I threw a knife at him and told him, ‘kill me if you are gay.’” The mother told, sobbing, with amazing honesty when her son came out. “I went to church and prayed, I took him to the doctor, I cried.” She then joined the PFLAG project who run family acceptance workshops and gradually began to understand and accept her son’s sexuality. After her presentation and the other Mother, all the workshop participants queued up to give the 2 ladies hugs. Then we heard from one of the ICS staff who told us:
“My parents took me to the psychoanalyst, they took me to see the monk and he fed me red rice to ‘cure’ me.” Teddy took his Mother to PFLAG and she also changed her way of thinking and accepted her son. Cambodia and other neighbouring countries are now going to look to start PFLAG initiatives.
In the afternoon we were treated to a song written by a Cambodian lesbian activist called “Give Our Children Human Rights” then there were 2 more emotional and inspiring presentations. Both by Khmer lesbian couples who have each couple been together for 40 years. The first couple, a manly character with a traditional red krama, and wife with polka dot blouse, both standing proudly with arms by their sides. She spoke for both of them, explaining she had recognized herself as a lesbian from 9 years old. She met her partner in 1976 and they stayed together through the Khmer Rouge period, during the 1980s they lived together but faced difficulties from their families trying to force them apart and marry men. She told her brother she’d kill herself if he forced them apart. Defiantly and bravely they stayed together and adopted 3 babies from the community and now have 6 grandchildren.
The second couple, who again live and appear as man and wife….I am interested in this way of lesbian couples here living as man and wife but remember that the cultural perceptions here of being lesbian or gay or transgender are much different to the West and confused further by different perceptions of gender. Again, the man in the couple spoke, they also met in 1976. Through the Khmer Rouge period (KR) they were able to firstly stay together as men and women lived separately, but when they were caught giving each other extra food they were separated and punished. Pointing her finger in the air, tears on her face she stood defiantly telling her story. She was made to dig a big hole for feeding her wife otherwise she would have been killed and in 1978 punished again for living as a couple she faced another obscure punishment of carrying and eating leaves.
Following the KR period when the population was dispersed they spent a year searching for each other. Happily they found each other but faced years of hardship as their families tried to force them to marry and they escaped to other provinces but struggled to support themselves. Eventually due to their insistence at not being separated they were accepted into their community and the village chief gave a house to live in. Their extended family began giving them children to adopt and they now have adopted 8 children. Her advice to the young people in the audience is to “love one person, one to one, not ten people!” The response of the participants was electric, hoots and cheers.
Lesbians in Cambodia are doubly disadvantaged by traditional values expecting certain roles of women. The emergent gay scene in the urban centres is dominated by gay men and lesbians not visible in this scene. Hearing from these 2 couples was certainly inspiring for me and hopefully for the many young Cambodian lesbians at the workshop too.