I’m not sure who first coined the phrase, but our friends in San Francisco started using the word lezbro to describe men who hang out primarily with lesbians. A lezbro is a special type of man…socially aware, emotionally in touch, and comfortable around women.
In Phnom Penh, we found the ultimate lezbro, 30 year-old Srorn Srun who focuses his work towards improving the lives of lesbians in Cambodia. Srorn recently represented Cambodia at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this spring to speak about LGBT needs, highlighting lesbian community concerns. After earning three university degrees, Srorn started working in HIV services for gay men. He says, “In Cambodia there are numerous NGO’s and foreign assistance dedicated to gay men’s heath but I found that there is nothing for women.” Having grown up with ten sisters, (yes TEN sisters), Srorn understands feminist values. He says, “women have no voice in Cambodia. They cannot move, talk, or think for themselves. Women are simply baby machines.”
He explained that there are two books every Cambodian must read about the laws for women and men. In these books he says, “The roles for women are to take care of house, take care of children, and cater to your husband. Women are not supposed to talk to people openly. Lots of cultural laws keep women from getting information.” Srorn says, “It is very hard to live as a woman in the traditional culture but even harder for lesbians. At least straight women have a chance at happiness in a marriage.”He then tells us a series of heartbreaking stories. He starts with a young lesbian friend of his who committed suicide when her parents tried to force her to change. He then discusses a married women whose husband finds out she has same-sex attractions and beats her everyday. Lastly he tells of us recent news of a 19 year-old unjustly imprisoned for by the police for her relationship with another woman.
“If you are a lesbian, you do not know who to talk to,” says Srorn. For this reason Srorn and his collegues began setting up support groups throughout Cambodia for lesbians to address this isolation. He himself runs two groups and then trains local lesbian leaders about LGBT education. They then become facilitators of groups in the provinces outside of Phnom Penh and consult with him. His network has a total of over 700 lesbians throughout Cambodia who are connected with the support groups. His cell phone constantly rings (about six times in our one hour interview), and he travels constantly on his scooter to meet with people throughout the countryside.
Srorn hopes that lesbian visibility and women’s roles will change in Cambodia. He tells women to stay focused on getting an education. He says, “First, I tell women that if they know that they’ll get kicked out of the house by coming out, maybe it is best to wait. Many women have a hard time staying in school without family support. Education is the key to job skills and independence. Secondly, I tell them to find someone they can trust to talk to so that you don’t feel alone.”
As a lesbian who has worked in HIV primarily with gay men, I laughed with Srorn about what it is like to work across your own gender. In San Francisco, lesbians have always been right alongside the HIV efforts and services towards gay men. I’ve never met a man, however, dedicated to lesbian services. Thanks to our lezbro, Srorn, a strong network of support groups exist so that every Cambodian lesbian can find someone to talk to.