It was an audacious idea, to say the least. Despite a small LGBT community locally and limited resources, Cambodia was going to host activists from its neighbours in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), thus making the first ever Asean Pride.
Organised by the Rainbow Community of Kampuchea (RoCK) and supported by the British embassy, it went off remarkably well.
"This year, Cambodia is chair of Asean," said Collette O'Regan, one of RoCK's leaders. "It's only fitting that we should host representatives from the region."
The combined Cambodian and Asean Pride was a ten-day event (12 – 20 May 2012) with a variety of activities both serious and fun. There were film screenings nearly every night, workshops, a tuk-tuk race, art exhibitions and the inevitable bar parties.
"The tuk-tuk race was really fun," said Jean Chong from Singapore. Each team had to decorate its assigned vehicle, and raced to hit the given destinations. "Just like the TV series Amazing Race, we had to solve riddles to discover where to go, and we needed Cambodians with us otherwise we'd be lost." It was a wonderful way for foreign participants to get to know the locals.
The workshops were the centrepiece of Pride Week. With the aim of sharing between Cambodians and other gay movements in the region, country groups spoke about projects they had done.
The Vietnamese contingent comprised three representatives from
Information, Connecting and Sharing (ICS) and two mothers of gay sons.
The three representatives from the Vietnamese group Information, Connecting and Sharing (ICS) brought with them two mothers of gay sons. The mothers spoke about how it was through P-FLAG Vietnam that they learnt to understand the issue. However, it was not an easy journey.
"When my 17-year-old son first told me he was gay," said one of the mothers, "I took a knife and gave it to him. 'If you are really gay, then kill me now,' I said to him."
From a recent survey, about 80 percent of LGBT persons experienced violence in their families, reported ICS.
Less dramatic was Teddy Nguyen's story. When he came out to his mother, she took him to psychologists and monks. "A monk used the Yin-Yang theory and said I must take the Yang element back," Teddy told a workshop group. "He said I must eat red rice."
Teddy then told his mother: "Fine, I will eat red rice if that's what will make you happy, but it's still not going to make me straight."
A limited awareness is the prevailing situation in Cambodia too. LGBT persons are perceived as "abnormal and unnatural", said O'Regan. "People generally believe that these identities are simply a fashion or a trend and are irresponsible and evil choices LGBT people are making, and bringing shame and problems to their families."
And yet, RoCK had members with stories of great courage and perseverance. Two middle-aged female-female couples from the provinces came to the capital, speaking of who they first discovered their partners way back in the 1970s when Cambodia was under the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge.
"One day, a soldier saw us being kind to each other," one of the women recalled, "and I was punished by being made to dig a trench in a short time, or else be killed.
"My wife was also sent away."
After the Khmer Rouge was defeated in 1979, they found each other again, but now their respective families got in the way. "My wife's father was very strong, and forced her many times to get married to a man."
And yet, here they are in 2012, ä little worse for wear perhaps, but proud parents of adopted children, victorious in forging a life together.
Local workshop participants
To be frank, many Asean delegates – generally young, urban, middle-class, with good command of English -- were taken aback when they first met the Cambodian group. The latter was predominantly female, older, and many looked like they came from isolated villages. Almost none could speak a word of English.
"I was really surprised to see so many women from the rural areas," said Myo Min Htet of Burma.
Alex Au (second from left) with Burmese delegates
"I don't know if what we're about to say in the workshops is going to make any sense to them," said another Asean representative, who has asked to remain anonymous. "They may come from very different circumstances."
On the other hand, it is testimony to RoCK's effective reach. How many LGBT organisations can boast of a network that can mobilise people in small towns and villages? Attendees at the workshops came from several provinces, such as Takeo, Battambang, Svay Rieng and even Preah Vihear up north.
Nonetheless, O'Regan herself felt a lot more needed to be done: "Our on-going LGBT organising around the provinces needs to continue as social networking is still limited as an organising tool in Cambodia due to low levels of internet penetration."
Paerin Choa (right) of Pink Dot Singapore giving a presentation about Pink Dot
Much thought went into the selection of films and documentaries. Additional work went into them too as several had been dubbed into Cambodian. The themes covered by the documentaries ranged from lesbians in Vietnam to transgenders in South Asia to queer activism in China. There were also short films from the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere, and feature films from France/Tunisia and America (Brokeback Mountain).
The events held in the bars were a little disconnected, in the sense that the crowds were almost all Western expats and Asean delegates. Few LGBT-identified Cambodians were present. This writer spotted one and thought he might be good for a quote or two for this article, only to discover within a minute ("You like massage?") that he was a moneyboy.
The art exhibitions were held at various venues. Mounted at K2 bar were posters for 2011 Seksualiti Merdeka, which had been cancelled when the Malaysian government unexpectedly took an adverse interest in it. Brought to Phnom Penh by Jerome Kugan, he told the audience that here at Cambodia Pride, these posters were being exhibited for the very first time.
On a lighter note, Maika from the Philippines was also thrilled to be embarking on a personal first. Coming back from a shopping trip with costumes needed for the evening's performance, when country delegations were to put up a show each, she said to this writer, "It's going to be the first time I'll be in drag."
The one event that was typically Cambodian was the Blessing and Community Day held at a Buddhist temple. There were well over a hundred local LGBT participants and many more straight families who took an interest when they came upon the event unexpectedly. Organised by MStyle, the day began with a senior monk making a short speech and calling upon blessings for the LGBT community and its members. This was followed by dance and song performances, and then several rounds of games – each with many willing volunteers – until lunch time.
The whole festival "exceeded our hopes," said O'Regan. "The experiences we shared together deepened our LGBT solidarity not just within in Cambodia but within ASEAN too -- particularly during our workshops."
She and co-organiser Srun Srorn also had reason to be happy with the media coverage they got. Phnom Penh Post had a write-up in both its Khmer and English versions. Radio France International (Khmer service) gave eight minutes' coverage. The events were also reported on Radio Free Asia. There might have been more coverage but the organisers were understandably too busy to be monitoring all stations.
"It was a very exciting and interesting event," said Phakwilai (Gai) Sahunalu of Thailand. "I was so happy to meet so many people from other countries," she added.
Dian from Indonesia had similar sentiments. "It's been great," she said, and like many other participants, hopes there will be another soon.
Alex Au has been a gay activist and social commentator for over 15 years and is the co-founder of People Like Us, Singapore. Alex is the author of the well-known Yawning Bread website.