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.
Transgender homosexuals inhabit the shadows of Khmer society. Though they’re emphatically proud of their lifestyles and sexuality, such proclamations might come out stilted or forebode some admittance of shame. Don’t tell my parents. Don’t use your real name. Don’t go home. Don’t.
Of the many narratives that have taken Beoung Kak 2’s homosexual residents into this fetid and cramped place, the story of a slight, curly-haired transgender named Srey Pisey seems emblematic. Pisey, gregarious and bright despite little formal education, has always had a secret inside her.
Pisey, now 28, was 13 when she realized she was different. Living in rural Kandal just outside Phnom Penh, she couldn’t stop the thought that she wasn’t right in this body, that she couldn’t relate to her family or anyone in her village. She felt alone. She felt scared. She said she knew she was supposed to be a woman, and the recognition was tortuous.
“I tried to kill myself twice when I was a child,” she said at home in Beoung Kak 2. “I took too much medication. I was very upset and disappointed that I was gay and my parents beat me and wanted me to go away from my home. I tried to change myself into a boy, but I couldn’t. Because, me as a woman, it’s natural.”
In 2002, Pisey’s parents disowned her and kicked her out, she said. So, without any skills, she came to Phnom Penh. She hasn’t been home since and says she misses her family every day though not sure what they would think of her now, a homosexual prostitute in Phnom Penh.
“I don’t know how to read,” Pisey said, echoing a theme in many stories here. “I don’t know how to write. I only know how to be a prostitute.”
Meanwhile, around 100 meters down the tracks, longtime resident Kaulap Kho sat inside her wooden shack rocking her 5-month-old son in a hammock. While she talked and her baby slept, Kho became angrier and angrier. This squat woman, with her husband, Tho, has lived here selling clams for 10 years. It has become their home. Where they want to raise their four children. But soon, she said, they’ll have to move back to the provinces to find work.
Kaulap’s profits selling clams have recently plunged 50 percent from $5 per day to $2.50, and the homosexuals, she spat, are to blame. Good Khmer folk don’t come to shops near such “sinful” people, she said. And so Kaulap broods as she rocks her baby, hatred in her eyes.
“These people are not the same as the general people; they talk and act very differently” said Meas Chanthan, executive director of Cambodia’s Corporation for Social Services and Development, one of Phnom Penh’s dozen non-governmental organizations that study and assist the country’s homosexual population. “They talk loudly, they scream and they’re not afraid of their neighbors.”
Meas continued, “These homosexuals think they’ve become isolated and that they have no one. They don’t like the general people either so they have no choice but to live together and so the homosexuals are so sad.”
Isolation seems an insurmountable and profound thing for some transgenders in Beoung Kak 2. At 9 a.m. on a recent Friday, while most residents here were already thinking about lunch, five transgender homosexuals slept inside their shack on a wooden floor. They had gotten back late the night before. No one had purchased them, and now they didn’t have enough money for rice.
Yet deep into midmorning, despite the light, the hunger, the noise spilling inside, the transgender homosexuals snuggled together, eyes closed: The rest of the world firmly outside.