Where to begin?
It’s evening of our first full day in Cambodia. Our heads are exploding with information; our hearts are already full with some of the stories we’ve heard. We’re glad to be back in this crazy-beautiful city after nearly 10 years, and back in the gay-owned Rambutan Resort, in whose sister hotel in Siem Reap we first thought about bringing a pride choir to Cambodia.
We had our first meeting with an LGBTQI organisation, Cam-ASEAN, this afternoon, in the Starbucks at Bokor traffic lights (yes, they’re a landmark). The Starbucks is large, cool and clearly a popular meeting place. We’re meeting with activist Srun Srorn, who tells us one of his current projects is providing job opportunities for young LGBT people to prevent them from homelessness. Employers can sign up to receive CVs from young folk at risk once they’re proven to be able to provide a safe working environment. We’re at Starbucks Bokor because the boss there has signed up.
We’ve ordered our coffees (‘two coffees for Miss Sarah’ calls the young barista) when Srorn and his colleague Pheung Sophea arrive, straight from another meeting. We know that Cam-ASEAN is responsible for the brand new SOGI curriculum (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) to be rolled out nationally for high school students as part of the Life Skills curriculum in 2019. We have lots of questions about it, particularly considering our own Australian government has just withdrawn Safe Schools, an equivalent program, from our own schools. But the story Srorn launches into about Cam-ASEAN’s current project is beyond incredible.
Srorn tells us of his work to create the same recognition for lesbians and trans people at an official level as there is for gay Khmer. Several years ago, he faced the official position that there were hardly any lesbians or trans people in Cambodia; since then he has worked to help dispel that myth. Cam-ASEAN's recent work is to go into villages and connect with trans and lesbian couples.
We ask how they identify these people, and are stunned by his response. Srorn and Sophea travelled from village to village, all over Cambodia. They asked the local police, the tuk tuk drivers, and the street sellers - people who know most of the village - 'Do you know any men who dress like women, or women who dress like men?’ ‘Yikes!’, Mel is thinking, 'Can you imagine that approach back home, where coming out is such a personal thing and we round on anybody who publicly 'outs' someone?’ Meanwhile, Sarah is impressed at the perseverance of such a painstaking approach to gathering information.
It seems a direct approach works, and works well. For many couples, the old cliche of being ‘the only gay in the village’ was true. Yet in one village alone, 7 long-standing trans couples identified themselves and are part of the project. Many of these couples have been together for over 40 years and survived the Khmer Rouge regime (that, in itself, does our heads in). Outside their village community, all these couples have come to realise they are not alone. And likewise, so have their neighbours and families.
Their stories are collected in a roving exhibition, ‘My Voice, My Story’. Just like Srorn and Sophea when collecting the stories, the exhibition now roams from village to village. Neighbours weep as they hear the stories of people who have been living among them all their lives. But the point of the project - of any of Srorn’s projects - isn’t to inspire pity for the difficulties of a queer life. It’s to empower LGBTQ people to show the strength in their lives. They have identified 5,000 people across Cambodia living in long-term (decades-long) trans and lesbian relationships. These elders were unknown to the young queer folk now centred on Cambodia’s big cities, or who have moved overseas. But now the faces of these elders are being seen, their stories are holding up the young folk, and, more importantly, they are stepping forward as key contributors to their own communities. Srorn shows us a video of a transman and his partner who are setting up a home for the old and poor in their community. It’s the same video we saw over breakfast this morning, reading up on Cam-ASEAN.
This story was the tip of the iceberg in our 90-minute conversation. Srorn is a passionate activist. He’s not the type to stay with one organisation, resting on his laurels. He tell us that he founds groups and then, when they secure funding, he leaves to start something new in the next area he feels needs development. He and Cam-ASEAN also use a model in all their projects which trains people to speak for themselves; young LGBTQ folk on Facebook live are interviewed about their lives, and then become the interviewer for a queer friend in their circle in a subsequent episode. Similarly, trans men and women accompany the roving ‘My Voice, My Story’ exhibition to rural villages, give their stories in person, and in doing so, train up the trans people in that village to speak about themselves.
Srorn has several ideas about how Pacific Pride Choir can support Khmer people. It will take time for us to figure out which one we can make work. Whatever it is, we reckon it’s going to be something that could teach the Australian government a thing or two about recognition.