Cultural events will form the basis for increased awareness of LGBT issues at this month’s Pride Week festival
By Roger Nelson
In a dusty printing store not far from Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument, a shy young clerk hands over a box of t-shirts. The words ‘Different but the Same’ are emblazoned in internationally recognisable rainbow colours across the shirts: the slogan chosen for this year’s Cambodia LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Pride Week, which runs from May 12-20 in the capital. “This year the slogan focuses on the sameness of us all as human beings despite our differences,” explains Cambodian artist Lyno Vuth, who designed the t-shirts.
The slogan playfully references the ubiquitous ‘same same but different’ items sold at souvenir stalls all over the Kingdom. Not far from this modest printing store is the colossal residence of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who publicly disowned his adopted daughter for being a lesbian in 2007. “We are concerned that one day her girls [will] take bombs and poisonous materials to our house and we all will die,” Hun Sen was quoted as saying at the time. While homosexuality is not illegal in Cambodia, and is generally tolerated within the Buddhist faith, intolerant attitudes remain common, as does discrimination within families, workplaces and the legal system.
“Maybe sometimes we hear terrible horror stories, but I think I’d hear terrible horror stories if I went back to London, actually,” says Alan James Flux, a British-born designer, spoken word performer and activist who has been involved with organising LGBT Pride art exhibitions in Phnom Penh since 2009. “I think we’re in a friendly, embracing atmosphere.”
Lyno Vuth agrees. “It’s great, it’s a very exciting energy, there is really a growing support, a growing number of artists discussing the issues, growing discussions from neighbouring countries joining the event,” he enthuses. “There is this energy of solidarity and support.”
Cambodia’s Chairmanship of Asean is boosting participation from the region this year. The British Embassy in Cambodia will sponsor Pride delegations from most Asean countries, following the first regional caucus of LGBT activists in Jakarta last year.
Certainly, there is much reason for optimism. Since beginning as a one-night party in 2003 and expanding to a week-long festival in 2009, Cambodia LGBT Pride has grown exponentially. Several hundred LGBT Cambodians, plus their friends, family and expat supporters, flocked to over thirty different events in 2011 – and this year is set to be even bigger. From daily aerobics training in a public park, to workshops offering media training for activists and tuk tuk races between LGBT-friendly venues around the city, Cambodia LGBT Pride Week 2012 will offer a packed schedule. Last year, for the first time, a ‘community day’ was held at Sam Roung Andet Pagoda, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The event, which included a deeply moving Buddhist monks’ blessing, was particularly inspiring and encouraging for the many Cambodian participants. This year, the blessing will shift to the more central and publicly visible Toul Tompong Pagoda, near Phnom Penh’s famous Russian Market.
Organisers are particularly excited to have a number of new venues involved for the first time this year, including the Institut Français, which Flux describes as “a very prestigious, well-respected and Khmer-friendly space”. The Institut will screen acclaimed feature film Le Fil, a French and Arabic production. For the first time this year, the expat community movie house The Flicks will be screening a series of LGBT-themed classic films. These venues join Meta House, which will continue to hold nightly screenings of LGBT films during Pride Week as it has for the past three years.
“Films are a great way for people to learn about a life very different from their own,” says Collette O’Regan, a leading organiser of Pride who is involved in the programming of screenings. “Each year we focus on a few important films or documentaries which we feel have the capacity to inspire, encourage and to change attitudes.” Films are dubbed into Khmer language in order to reach the broadest possible Cambodian audience. This year, organisers are also holding a competition for Cambodian film students to make short pieces on LGBT themes.
Film screenings, art exhibitions, dance performances: these cultural events dominate Cambodia’s Pride Week. This is largely because, unlike most global cities, Phnom Penh does not hold a public LGBT parade. Pride events are almost all hosted in private venues, in part, says Flux, “so that no one can come and shut us down and we don’t have to ask permission”. Artistic and cultural events are seen as more inclusive and less threatening to Cambodian audiences than a public parade.
“It’s taking time for people to get comfortable talking about the issues,” Lyno Vuth explains. He co-organised 2010’s Pride art exhibition, at a gallery bordering Psar Kabko market, near Meta House. “The thing I like about it is that it’s very close to everyday Cambodians,” he says. This year, Pride art exhibitions will be held at Meta House, Top Art Gallery on the busy riverside, and K’nyay restaurant and bar. Cambodian artists including Em Riem, Thang Sothea and Din Borin will be joined by Thai photographer Piyarat Piyapongwiwat, Vietnamese-American artist Viet Le, and selected other regional and international contributors. The exhibitions will feature a diverse range of styles and mediums, including painting, video installation and jewellery design.
Just as art and culture play a vital role in attracting Cambodians to Pride Week activities and raising awareness about LGBT issues, involvement in Pride can be an important boost to the confidence and profile of local artists. In 2011, Lyno Vuth was invited to hold a solo show at respected contemporary art gallery Sa Sa Bassac. He linked this with Pride Week “to make a connection and be part of a celebration, and for the awareness”. The exhibition, Thoamada (“normal” in Khmer language), featured portraits and recorded interviews with nine Cambodian men who have sex with men (MSMs) – males who have sexual relations with other men but who do not identify as gay or bisexual. “We wanted to share some life stories about Cambodian men,” says Lyno Vuth, who focused on “the individuality of people: even though they are a part of the gay community they are very diverse.” Thoamada was a hit during Pride Week, but was also acclaimed by art critics and curators, and Lyno Vuth was subsequently invited to join the important Chongqing Youth Biennial last year. “It’s a great opportunity for international exposure and getting the story wider,” Lyno Vuth admits, “but the challenge is to communicate the story to Cambodians.”
Cambodia LGBT Pride Week, with its busy programme of art and cultural events, continues to creatively meet that challenge.