Gay Pride celebration on May 10, 2016
When Meta House’s Nicolas Mesterharm went to his first Pride event in Phnom Penh in 2005, it consisted of a single boat docked on the riverside. Supported by Oxfam, performers sang their heart out to ‘It’s Raining Men’ and ‘Staying Alive’, international LGBTi anthems that even more than a decade ago had reached Phnom Penh. Mesterharm, raised in Berlin/Germany, where the LGBTi community’s presence is broad and diverse, said he felt inclined to support the budding Cambodian scene. Since opening in 2007, Meta House has hosted annual Pride events featuring both exhibitions and film festivals.
Sao Sopheak (middle) with exhibition visitors
Gay-friendly bars, drag shows, gay spas and saunas… Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Cambodia’s other urban centers have got the lot when it comes to catering for the LGBTi scene. Visitors would be forgiven for thinking the country is tolerant of the community. However, growing up gay in Cambodia can be a very different story. In a conservative country, Cambodians have traditionally viewed LGBTi practices as being against nature and a threat to rebuilding of the social order in the aftermath of 30 years of war, which left the country’s social fabric in tatters. Many faced abuse and discrimination at home, in school, and in the workplace. Some were rejected by their families or pressured into a conventional marriage where they struggled with their sexual identity. Others were locked-up in their village homes.
Two Girls Against the Rain Poster
Film protaganists Yun & Eang
Meta House’s 2012 documentary film workshop in cooperation with the LGBTi rights NGO “Rainbow Organizing Committee Kampuchea” (RoCK) led to the production of a short documentary series, which includes the award-winning “Two Girls against the Rain” by Sao Sopheak. The filmmaker spent two days filming Soth Yun (57) and Sem Eang (58). The resulting 11-minute-documentary – telling the captivatingly courageous and touching story of a lesbian couple struggling for acceptance – was shown at “Berlinale” 2012. Sopheak became the first Cambodian female director to be invited by this annual “A” film festival in Germany’s capital.
LGBTIQ activist Sou Sotheavy
Sopheak’s second film on the topic, “Somewhere under the Rainbow”, follows the story of Sou Sotheavy – possibly the only Cambodian transgender, who has survived the Khmer Rouge genocide, as well as the AIDS epidemic in the early 2000s. As an advocate for equal rights for same sex couples since 1999, Sotheavy established the Cambodian Network for Men Women Development (CMWD), the first Cambodian NGO to support LGBTi people. In 2014, Sotheavy received the David Kato Vision & Voice Award. “I am tremendously moved to be given this award that to me symbolizes the struggle for rights and freedom for LGBT people in Cambodia,” said Sotheavy. “I think of the torture and suffering that I have endured throughout my life. Today, I am fortunate to live a life that I have always dreamed of, a life that allows me to help LGBT Cambodians escape the torture, contempt, and discrimination that exists in many families and in Cambodian society.”