10am Tuesday, and we're sitting in an Australian-owned, Cambodian-run cafe, The Little Red Fox Espresso, reportedly the best coffee in Siem Reap. We’re meeting Jason Argenta, founder of A Place to Be Yourself, a drop-in centre and safe space for LGBTIQ+ people.
Originally from Perth, Jason came to Siem Reap about five years ago, volunteering to build houses and to teach. He loved working in the villages building houses, and quickly discovered that teaching wasn’t his thing. He was meant to follow his stint volunteering spending a further three months travelling, but after six weeks, he changed plans and stayed for the duration of his holiday. This is a theme we’ll hear repeated again and again by the surprising number of Aussie expats we meet - come for three days, never leave (PPCers, you’ve been warned!).
With qualifications in Psychology and Sociology and working in Child Protection, Jason had volunteered at an LGBTQI drop-in centre in Australia. But as we’re discovering, there is something about Cambodia and Siem Reap in particular which draws you back. After selling everything, he moved to Siem Reap, and seeing a similar need, founded A Place to Be Yourself (APTBY).
Surviving on fundraising and the odd contra arrangement, APTYB is open three hours every afternoon and employees two local Khmer staff: Pov, a trans man and Kunthea, a former street kid. Their office is on the first floor of the Purple Mango Wellness Centre, a typical Khmer stilt house, and offers a range of services including sexual health information, free condoms, and free counselling. On the covered deck, next to a spreading mango tree, lolls Freddie the genderqueer cat and his new kitten sidekick, Fanny. Despite the multitude of resources on the walls, the place feels instantly like home. An 'identity wall' spells out LGBTQI with Khmer explanations beneath. Both Jason and Pov explain that this is the best way to introduce these terms and concepts.
People accessing the space can read the wall in their own time and then ask questions. In fact, this is how Pov came out as a trans man. He identified as Lesbian, but after having the identity wall explained to him, and the term Transgender highlighted, Pov walked away a new man. Not only did his life make sense, he knew he wasn’t alone. Pov came out to his family and it was difficult for his parents in particular to accept his choice. But after three years, his father finally said, 'You are my son.' Khmer people are traditionally gently-spoken and reserved, but there’s still raw emotion in Pov’s face and voice describing this seminal moment.
Our day segued from the Little Red Fox to A Place To Be Yourself in much the same way as this blog post - what started as the best coffee in town with Jason, made by Adam’s expert LGT cafe staff at the Fox, has morphed into coconut coffee made by Jason at APTBY while Adam snidely offers barista training if he needs it. There’s a clatter from the kitchen in response as Adam, a Brisbane bloke who also threw in his Aussie life for Siem Reap, regards us cheekily over his bushy hipster beard. Both Jason and Adam are part of the network of LGBTQ business owners who organise Pride and other events in the town. We’ve hit the motherload of queer intel and by the time the sun is setting, and Freddie and Fanny reduced to rapturously purring puddles in our laps (make up your own jokes, we certainly did), we feel like we know every business and business owner, and how they fit into the rainbow jigsaw puzzle, even if we won’t manage actually to visit every establishment. Suffice to say, despite the massive boom in every kind of shop and eatery you can think of, you could stay here a good while and only support the pink economy if you so wished. It’s heartening to see how many of these businesses employ, partner with, or are run by, Khmer.
Pov takes a photo of us standing under APTBY’s emblematic rainbow umbrella, each of your two pet-sick authors cradling a very compliant cat. It’s still amazing to us how easy it is to feel like old friends on first acquaintance with fellow queers, and how living a common experience of exclusion (despite obvious differences in degree) can break down language barriers to create an inclusivity that defies international borders. A Place To Be Yourself - isn’t that something we all could do with?