She smells of perfume, sweet and flowery. Her hair is straightened and some of the locks are colored with glitter that matches her lip gloss. Her hands are folded and she rests them on her chic purse.
But it’s when she speaks—in a deep voice—that Prum Malea reveals that she is no ordinary woman.
Actually, she is a 26-year-old gay man from Siem Reap province.
Last weekend she was in Phnom Penh to attend the 4th Annual Gay/Lesbian/Bi-and-Transgender Party at the National Cultural Center, which took place Dec 23.
Prum Malea was not here just to party: To her, the most important thing was to talk about being gay in Cambodia and encourage other homosexuals to do the same.
And that was the idea of the annual get-together, according to the organizer, Chath Piersath, a 38-year-old Cambodian-American who first returned to Cambodia in 2003.
The annual party is an attempt to build a sense of community among Cambodian gay people.
Last year’s party had approximately 400 guests but this year, there were around 200 people sitting at the red-clothed tables, standing at the bar or in front of the stage, where transgendered dancers performed.
Though the situation is improving, there is still a lot of social stigma surrounding gays, and a lot of ignorance, Chat Piersath said.
“In 2003, when I came, there were a lot of NGOs working with homosexuality and dealing with some of the issues surrounding the environment, such as HIV/AIDS. Which is good, but there is also a need for a social scene where gay people can meet other gay people,” he said.
“Many people associate homosexuality with having same-sex sex, as if gay people could not love,” he added.
“Gay people do have emotions and relationships, just like everybody else. I want people to be able to say: Hey wow, I am gay…and it’s OK!”
For Phat Sophat, the director of Men’s Health Social Service—the NGO behind the dance performances, the HIV/AIDS presentations on the stage and the flyers, posters and stands discretely placed to the side of the party— the main purpose of the evening was to provide information.
“There is a lack of HIV/AIDS information in the gay community,” he said.
“We want to tell people to have fun, but be safe.”
His service puts up posters with pictures of men caressing men, hoping that the presence of such pictures might prevent discrimination.
However, discrimination does not only happen with strangers. Being openly gay is also taking the risk of being ostracized by one’s family, Phat Sophat said.
That is something Prum Malea knows all too well. She has known she was transgendered—a person feeling caught in a body of the wrong sex—since she was 18.
“My parents were very angry when I told them I felt like a woman and I liked men. They wanted to change me back into a man and when they could not, they burned my clothes and threw me out of the house,” she said quietly.
“I did not understand and I was very sad, because I am part of their blood. They should love me for who I am.”
Today, Prum Malea’s family has accepted that their son is in fact their daughter. But that acceptance has strict limits.
“My family is very silent about my being transgendered,” Prum Malea said.
“They don’t talk about it and they don’t ask me about it.”