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Make no mistake: This is not a place to celebrate sexuality. This is a place for survival.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Along the train tracks in one of Phnom Penh’s ubiquitous slums, the noise never stops and everything is changing. Longtime residents are fearful that they’ll soon have to move. This place isn’t safe anymore, they say. It isn’t moral anymore.
Along these same tracks, roughly 100 new residents, in search of asylum and community, have trickled in over the last several years and now lead lives of shocking desperation. Most of them only sleep during the day. Some perform acts of prostitution. Others dress as women. Almost all of them are homosexual men. And this place, Beoung Kak 2, has become a home: Cambodia’s first gay town.
But this isn’t Boystown in Chicago, nor the Castro in San Francisco. This isn’t a place where homosexuals can celebrate sexuality, individuality, love. Make no mistake: It’s a place for survival.
Every month more newcomers arrive, and as this community expands and supplants longtime residents, it represents both a burgeoning confidence among Cambodia’s gay population, as well as the difficulties that lie ahead for homosexuals here struggling for acceptance and equality.
As two worlds converge and clash in Beoung Kak 2, each seems allegoric, as though re-enacting a bigger national issue. The young, radically sexual newcomers stand juxtaposed against a traditional set of neighbors that are baffled, and sometimes frightened, by the swelling number of openly gay Khmer down the road.
“We’re scared that more [homosexuals] will keep coming here and make more terrible activities back there,” said Srey Oun, 48, who lives behind her now-defunct hair salon in Beoung Kak 2. “Everyone is scared like me. Khmer culture isn’t changing, but the people are.”
Since 2004, the number of “out” homosexuals in Phnom Penh has exploded from around 900 to approximately 10,000 today, according to nongovernmental organizations that track the city’s gay community. Other provinces have seen such staggering growth among their gay communities as well, census records show.
For years, the ever-growing number of openly gay Khmer had scattered themselves, meeting socially, but living separately, NGO workers say. Last March, however, Prime Minister Hun Sen castigated Cambodia’s reputation as a destination for sex tourism. Soon after, police shuttered brothels and karaoke bars across the capital, where many transgenders worked and lived. Destitute and homeless, some staggered to the slums of Beoung Kak 2.
“If we’re not with each other, we’re scared everyone will look down on us or beat us,” said Kong Chan Rattna, 24, amid eight fellow transgender homosexuals inside a hut stilted above a stream. “Together, we can have happiness — we can go anywhere. Nothing’s a problem.”
Cambodia’s definition of homosexuality and gender challenges Western notions. In Cambodia, there’s a third gender — frequently called “lady boys” — that falls somewhere between male and female. By all appearances and mannerisms, they’re female and identify as such though born male; most haven’t undergone any sex-change operations, they say.