Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Very Short History of the Khmer Rouge and What It's Like to be Gay in Cambodia Today

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After our horn blaring, auto jockeying journey Susan and I arrived at the Southern Cambodia seaside village of Kep. We checked into the Veranda Resort—a unique hillside facility with a panoramic view of the Gulf of Thailand. For around $30 dollars you can rent a bungalow among the tree-tops. The Veranda's 14 bungalows are built on stilts and joined together by a maze of rather springy wooden passageways. If you don't look down you are fine. After the first day, you stop wondering if the place is structurally sound and you begin to forget that you are precariously suspended in mid-air.

That evening we were joined for dinner by Chath Pier Sath a gay Cambodian who has returned to his country after being a Khmer Rouge refugee whose family fled to Thailand in 1979 and ultimately received asylum in the US in 1981.

The Khmer Rouge is remembered mainly for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million people or 1/5 of the country's total population under its regime, through execution, starvation and forced labor. Following their leader, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge imposed an extreme form of social engineering on Cambodian society, radical form of agrarian communism where the whole population had to work in collective farms or forced labor projects. It was one of the most lethal regimes of the 20th century. After four years of rule, the Khmer Rouge regime was removed from power in 1979.

Chat is a remarkable man. A painter, poet, activist, author and a life force to be reckoned with, he has survived one of the most horrific periods in recent history and yet he continues to look ahead with a purposeful spirit. In his own words, I have been in Cambodia off and on doing various work with NGOs as paid and volunteer staff. I love Cambodia, but I don't feel completely comfortable in it because I see these people repeating pre-Khmer Rouge behaviors, and they scare me. I want to go away, but this is the only country I have that I feel less invisible in. My work often describes this uncertainty in my life, I am always floating somewhere, running away from something, going places, always traveling, seeking adventure, looking for people to love and be with, searching for my everlasting purpose in the world.

With the conversation shifting to LGBT issues, he explains that much like his country, gay life in Cambodia is still emerging. Arranged marriages still exist here and the expectations for building a family are strong. Culturally speaking LGBT life remains on the down low here – operating on the margins of society under a ‘don=t ask don=t tell’ umbrella. It was fascinating to learn that ‘gay’ is not the operative word in Cambodia. Men Having Sex with Men (MSM) and Women Having Sex with Women (WSW) is the correct way to talk about these things in Cambodia, Chath instructs.

Chath feels that there is a general karmic acceptance of homosexuality in Cambodia. Since you are born with this destiny there is an unspoken underlying live and let live attitude. I mean after all, our King is homosexual, he exclaims. I ask why LGBT life remains mostly under the radar. It is not something most people concern themselves with or relate to in this country where survival of the fittest prevails he summarizes.

The conversation turns to sex . Chat talks about lesbians in Cambodia and he notes that people here are quite confused about this. There is an understanding of what men get up to sexually but sex between women is not understood he says. Susan chimes in that this makes perfect sense since the pleasuring of women is not what intercourse in this country is about. Chat echoes this sentiment with yes, the vagina is about what the man needs and when he gets it the whole thing is usually over in a matter of seconds. The woman just lies there— - it's all done even before the woman knows it's in! So of course if we are talking about vaginas and what women might do together there is great mystery. Whereas sex between men is understood – anal intercourse is penetration – a concept that is commonly known.

I ask about violence against the LGBT community. Not so much he says. Ridicule yes but violence no. Especially if you are an effeminate male which is the only way gay men are depicted in the media here. There are new gay bars in Phnom Penh and sometimes men who are seen going in and out might get made fun of. He also mentions he has heard of a village in the countryside where he believes a group of transvestites have assembled and are now residing safely among the regular residents there. Chat promises to gather more information about this unique phenomenon in Cambodia. He laughs and says, ah, my country of contradictions.

As our conversation drifts on, the tropical breezes of the balmy night seem to whisper that like in most of the world, the LGBT community is still finding its way in Cambodia. As a gust of wind ripples past the three of us united in animated conversation upon our veranda in the tree- tops high above the seaside, I feel hopeful. We talk into the night and agree that slowly but surely progress is unfolding here for the LGBT community. I suddenly understand why Chath has returned to Cambodia – his karmic destiny is to blaze the trail.

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