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7 Jun 2012

Love and survival through Khmer Rouge years

Alex Au and other LGBT activists from Cambodia's Asean neighbours recently heard the stories of lesbian couples hailing from the deep provinces of Cambodia who survived the Khmer Rouge years about survival, staying together, and raising children and granchildren by adopting children – some from their own brothers and sisters, others anonymously.

The above picture is of four women flanking a man in the centre. The women – constituting two life-long couples – were about to share their life stories at a workshop in Phnom Penh recently with about 34 gay activists from Cambodia’s Asean neighbours in the room (and about 50-60 more Cambodians).

I was among them, and I’m almost sure most of the Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) activists found it hard to see these women, hailing from the deep provinces of Cambodia, as “one of us”. 

One of the things that modern gay movements tend not to discuss is the way we ourselves may hold class prejudices. Yet these prejudices arise all too easily from the origins of modern gay consciousness and its resulting discourse. 

It’s like this: While homosexual orientation is as old as mammalian evolution, gay identity as a concept is relatively recent. The modern discourse, which is identity- and rights-based, also found its first flowering in urban capitals of Western countries. Coming to Asia, it is only to be expected that this kind of gay discourse first takes root among the middle-class, partly western-acculturated sections of our urban populations – thus the prevailing character of modern gay movements in Asian countries. The result is a stereotype of a “gay person” with precisely these characteristics, a stereotype that gay people themselves hold.

The stereotypical "gay look" -- Taiwan Pride 2009

When the Singapore contingent came upon the Cambodian lesbian community at the workshop, I think we gasped. “They look like rice farmers!” we said to ourselves, as if the thought had never occurred to us that farmers too could be gay. However, we had enough self-awareness to feel promptly embarrassed and were quick to admonish ourselves for our own classist reaction.

That said, the fact remained that they were not quite “gay” in the way we conceive of being gay. The couples modelled themselves very much on heterosexual lines, with one partner seeing herself as ‘husband’ and the other as ‘wife’. You could even tell from the way they dressed in the picture at top which ones were the husbands and which ones the wives. Even as they told their stories, only the husbands spoke. The wives just stood silently by their sides answering a question or two only when asked. The highly genderised roles they adopted are ones that same-sex couples, East and West (have you seen the film Albert Nobbs?) might have adopted for eons, but because it’s something rejected by modern gay sensibilities, it comes across as strange to us today.

Their concerns were probably different too, which I will illustrate with this incident: 

It occurred on a different day, and right after the team from the Philippines (or was it Thailand?) made a presentation about their recent efforts to engage the media. There was much discussion about reporters’ use of loaded terms, about their choice of lurid and sensational stories and what it took to correct them. Discussion also centred on (in)visibility on television and media representation generally. 

And then a Cambodian woman from the audience, looking not much different from the four in the photo above, raised her hand to ask a question: In your country (Philippines), do women-who-love-women find it hard to get jobs? 

We were on totally different wavelengths! 

It is very easy to laugh and somehow pigeonhole these women as simpletons with utterly parochial concerns, but that would be so, so wrong. Their life stories would prove how much fortitude they have in them, how enduring their love for each other has been, and how much adversity they’ve had to go through. No city-slicker has anything close to boast of. 

* * * * *

Their stories in three parts

“We decided to adopt children,” said Sot Yun, as translated by Srun Srorn. “In 1981, we adopted my cousin’s baby daughter, and in 1987 and 1991 we were given two more babies (boys) anonymously – we don’t know who exactly their parents were. 

“Today, the older two are married and have given us six grandchildren. Our youngest boy is now in university.” 

The other couple, Noy Sitha and Hong Sareun, have raised eight children, all given to them by their brothers and sisters. But it’s not as if their siblings accepted their relationship readily. Quite the opposite: winning acceptance was a long struggle. 

* * * * * 

“And so we were separated,” said Noy Sitha, referring to the worst moments she had to endure in the late 1970s, in the last months of the Khmers Rouges terror. After the Khmers Rouges were overthrown, “I had to go from place to place to look for my wife. 

“Eventually I found her with other members of her family, but that was only the start of a new set of problems.” 

The family objected to the relationship and Hong Sareun’s father insisted on marrying his daughter off to a man. “He tried many times to force her to get married,” recalled Sitha, “but her mother could see that I work very hard, I do heavy work like a man. Eventually she began to see that I was born this way and can do a man’s job.”

However, the mother kept her thoughts to herself for many years, as the father’s pressure piled up.

“So I withdrew to a temple and left her [Hong Sareun]. 

“But Yoon [Hong Sareun] couldn’t bear the separation either. She did not eat, got sick and got weaker and weaker. She wanted to die, we both did. Eventually, the family allowed me back to take care of her.”

But still the pressure to marry heterosexually was applied. The couple tried running away to Battambang province, but with no money and no means of livelihood, that plan didn’t work either. Back home they came, except that this time, they went to their village chief to ask for support.

“I asked him to please give me a plot of land,” recalled Sitha. “However, he hesitated. ‘How can you stay as a couple?’ he asked.” 

“I said to him: ‘If you give me land, I will do the things that need to be done, otherwise I will cut off my hand and give it to you.’ “ 

It took a long while, but eventually the chief relented and assigned them a plot. On it, they built their own house with their bare hands. Among other crops, they grew sugar cane. They had to cut the long, heavy stalks and carry them to market. 

Gradually, the other members of the family came to visit as a sign of grudging acceptance, and one day, a brother sent his baby son to live with them. The boy has grown up – the first of eight children – and will be getting married soon. 

Some time later, the village chief came by and offered to register them all as a family. 

The other couple, Sot Yun and Sem Eang, went through a similar period of family objection through the 1980s. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, their brothers and sisters, who had been scattered by the Khmer Rouge, came back to the village. 

“My older brother tried to break us up,” Sot Yun said. “He insisted that I live with him, not with my wife.”

 Sot Yun had to put her foot down. “I said to my brother, ‘If I go to live with you, you can’t get my whole body, just the bones.’ ” The reference was to the lifeless remains after cremation. 

Faced with Sot Yun’s adamant stand, the brother relented, but the couple could not be sure when a new attempt to split them up might arise again. “So we decided to adopt children.”

* * * * * 

Sot Yun had first met her future wife Sem Eang in 1976, when the Khmers Rouges were in control, terrorising the entire Cambodian population. Millions would die from starvation and mass executions during the four years of their rule. They had to keep their relationship secret at the risk of their lives.

Noy Sitha and Hong Sareun too met each other in 1976. “At the time, under the Khmers Rouges, men and women had to live separately, in gender-segregated houses,” Sitha explained. So while they could be together, “we could not let others notice us as a couple. We would be killed.” 

Unfortunately, one day, a Khmer Rouge soldier saw an act of kindness between them and began to suspect an illicit relationship. “I was punished,” said Sitha, “by being made to dig a trench in double-quick time.

 “If I didn’t complete the task, I would be killed.”

Clearly, she managed. 

She was caught a second time and, for punishment, she had to cart away a small hill, all the while with nothing except leaves to eat. But this time, the soldiers sent Hong Sareun away while Sitha was being punished. 

“And so we were separated.” 

* * * * * 

It’s been hard living together, both couples agreed. “But the only way is to understand each other and not pay too much attention to others who talk bad about us,” advised Sot Yun. 

“We want people around us to stop discriminating against us,” said Noy Sitha. She pressed the point home that she could do everything a man can do, and that she and her wife have even raised a family. “Raising children is a big responsibility.”

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.


Reader's Comments

1. 2012-06-07 17:33  
hope that there will be better chances for the LBGT community in Cambodia.
2. 2012-06-07 18:08  
What a heroic and struggling stories of these women! It makes me wet eyes and smile. Thank you sisters for sharing your stories to us.
Love you all.
3. 2012-06-07 19:22  
Beautiful, sad, amazing story.

Also, Alex Au writes,
"While homosexual orientation is as old as mammalian evolution, gay identity as a concept is relatively recent. The modern discourse, which is identity- and rights-based, also found its first flowering in urban capitals of Western countries. Coming to Asia, it is only to be expected that this kind of gay discourse first takes root among the middle-class, partly western-acculturated sections of our urban populations – thus the prevailing character of modern gay movements in Asian countries."

Really glad for the class consciousness of this article. :)
4. 2012-06-07 22:22  
The end of the article is a moving relation but I am rather confused by the first part and its 'class' issues. I don't see any differences between the difficulties these women faced and those LGBT people face in 'developed' societies. And gender-marking in gay couples may not be universal, but is also widespread in 'developed' societies.

Especially I am baffled that the question "do women-who-love-women find it hard to get jobs?" elicited the reaction: "We were on totally different wavelengths!"
5. 2012-06-07 22:33  

The idea that there was no gay or lesbian sexual identity until modern times in the West is probably a misconception. For example, Hester Thrale in her diary in the 1790s describes a ‘Sapphist’ as a woman who likes ‘her own sex in a criminal way’.

For a detailed and cross cultural article on the subject I refer you and Alex to:


6. 2012-06-08 00:21  
it's very touching, I will learn about your spirits to make my dream come true.
7. 2012-06-08 01:38  
hope so, cos the situation is starting to change little by little here.
8. 2012-06-08 05:51  
It's very moving to hear these women's stories. However, I'm appalled by the snobbish attitude of the article: “They look like rice farmers!”... "We were on totally different wavelengths!" Perhaps the writer of the article Alex Au needs to step outside the 'gay ghetto' of clubs, bars and shopping and realise that LGBT come from many diverse backgrounds, including rural, poor ones! Any queen can take their shirt off and take part in a gay pride parade, but these women show true courage and strength.
9. 2012-06-08 09:48  
Comment 8: "Perhaps the writer of the article Alex Au needs to step outside the 'gay ghetto' of clubs, bars and shopping and realise that LGBT come from many diverse backgrounds, including rural, poor ones!"

I know of Alex's active involvement and devoting a considerable amount of time advocating the rights of and personally assisting low wage migrant workers who have been treated unfairly or shortchanged by employers and sometimes govt agencies by accompanying them to make police reports, writing letters in English, negotiating with govt agencies on the workers behalf, etc. So to accuse him of not realising that LGBTs are from different backgrounds is totally off mark.
10. 2012-06-08 21:16  
Thanks for sharing this great and touching story of these women!
11. 2012-06-08 23:48  
This story shows just one of the many reason humans evolved to have gays and lesbians. And that is to serve as "extra" parents in just such extreme situations.

War and famine and disease were quite common all throughout history. I'm quite confident that you and I both have ancestors who survived because of gay and lesbian people helped out when things got really bad. We are here today as a result.
12. 2012-06-09 00:27  
thanks for a very fine and interesting article. the Khmers can handle this issue / these issues in their own way/s....they are making huge progress.

if anyone logs onto one gay Khmer on a facebook page, you will soon see the hundreds of gay khmer men at least who are on line a lot.

But...the headline on the article is misleading in the sense that there is a risky trend in Khmer society now to "forget" the internal genocide of the Khmer Rouge period, 75-78 when at least 1 mission Khmers died.

The current regime in Cambodia does all it can to stifle this story and it is not taught in the public school or private schools curriculum. The Toul Salaeng Prison pictured here has tried to have been closed by the current government many many times but they can not do it yet.

The recent trial of the remaining aging and dieing off Khmer Rouge leaders has led to some prosecutions but there are many many more Khmer Rouge "footsoldiers" still around all over. The trials have brought to bear and raised the difficult period of the Khmer Rouge period again and people are dealing with it again, slowly.

But I am worried that the generation of young people are not being taught by anyone about the terrible killings during the Khmer Rouge period and are either in denial, don't care, or don't know. There is a growing consumerism trend in Khmer society and for the younger generation the obsessions are with media, music and celebreties.

Anyway, just a bit of background. I worked in Cambodia for 3 years and worked with Khmer refugees in Thailand for about 5-6 years. I still go to PP, as they say now for Phnom Penh, and keep in touch. I speak basic Khmer but what I say above has been noted by many people who live there all they time and by Khmer people.
13. 2012-06-09 08:50  
Please protect Cambodia from a new "invasion" of gay sex tourists looking to pillage the local population and create a "money boy" culture.
You can meet Khmer gay men or women casually and do not need to frequent "brothels". and please NO PEDOPHILE SEX TOURISM. If you see paedophiles during your trip to Cambodia please report them to the police or to the many Khmer human rights groups or gay activist groups, some of which are noted in the article above. And patronize
"Friends" Restaurant near the Palace in PP. They hire street kids, train and place them in jobs, and also have GREAT Khmer food, high end.
14. 2012-06-09 12:03  
What a sad and heroic storey. The strength of the two ladies should be an inspiration to the whole Gay community. Two real people living real and productive lives, they would be a credit to any community. Sadly gay has come to be represented in many ways world wide by stereo typical clowns, that appear at gay pride parties once a year.
Sadly these events in many countries are platforms for the gay sex industry.
Get on the right wavelength and applauded these two marvelous human beings.
15. 2012-06-09 12:42  
wow really an amazing article. id been to cambodia but had no idea anything like this was transpiring. somehow though the place resonated with me (rightly or wrongly) as somewhere with a really deep dark undercurrent. even if i hadnt read about the history there was some kind of energy about the place that sticks with my memory of the whole experience. reading about what these women have been through is really amazing. really helps put in perspective the utter vapid banality of modern "gay" life which seems some days the march of stereotypes rather than anything nearly as authentic and incredible as what these people have seen in their lives.
Comment #16 was deleted by its author on 2012-06-10 10:28
17. 2012-06-14 00:55  
When I was young I felt special to be gay, because so many artist were gay. I belonged to a club of gifted people. Even hairdressers and window dressers could be considered artistic. Gays had a creative mind, I thought and I was gay so ...
By frequent and mostly nice experiences I found out that the most unartistic people, the most simple people, in short everybody can be gay. People came out with the most vulgain behaviour in the media. I don't feel special anymore being gay now. I feel good though. I have a relationship with the son of a rice farmer and my god he does take care of his sawah.

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