When Meas Chanthan invited a group of health NGO representatives to watch a performance by the transsexual dancers he worked with in 1999, his idea was met with equal measures of amusement and shock.
“They said to me, ‘Chanthan, what are you doing?’” he said. “They could not accept the idea.”
Meas Chanthan works for the Urban Sector Group, the first—and for several years the only—organization to assist homosexuals living in Cambodia.
Three years later, things are changing fast for Cambodian transsexuals and homosexuals—and the way they are perceived. NGOs and health organizations are starting to recognize homosexual behavior, or MSM (Men Having Sex With Men), as it is known among health workers, as a missing link in the nation’s fight against HIV/AIDS.
At a workshop organized by the Khmer HIV/AIDS NGO Alliance this week, staff from 10 provincial health NGOs gathered, along with researchers conducting a survey into homosexual activity and members of the homosexual and transsexual communities, to discuss issues relating to MSM.
A combination of hilarity and frankness characterized the workshop, with groups asked to look closely at their own thoughts and preconceptions about homosexuality. Participants were asked to make lists of terminology relating to gay sex—lists which grew longer and more outrageous as the exercise went on, and revealed numerous regional variations in the way homosexuals are described and perceived.
This new interest in the issue comes not a minute too soon for people like Sav Voneath, a 24-year old transsexual with a heavily made-up face and shocking red hair.
“Coming here has given me freedom,” he said. “It means I’m not discriminated against any more.”
Choub Chamreun, KHANA’s Senior Program Officer, confirmed that the emergence of projects designed to help homosexuals, and gay sex workers in particular, has been very recent.
“It is only since the beginning of this year that MSM have been seen as a key factor in dealing with HIV/AIDS,” he said.
Pok Panhavichet, KHANA’s executive director, lamented the many years that HIV/AIDS education among homosexuals has been neglected in Cambodia.
“We cannot leave the gay men alone any more,” she said. “We want to bring Cambodia in line with international developments in HIV/AIDS care and prevention for MSM,” she said.
At the workshop, many representatives of provincial NGOs described how their projects had changed focus in the past few months. From assisting only female sex workers, many organizations have been forced to confront the issue of HIV/AIDS awareness among the transsexuals who often work in brothels with them.
Commonly ostracized by their families and by society as a whole, transsexuals are often forced into prostitution, Meas Chanthan said. “It’s their last option,” he explained.
These transgender sex workers are particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS infection, Meas Chanthan added. The nature of homosexual intercourse makes the likelihood of HIV/AIDS infection far greater for male prostitutes, he said.
“Most of the transgender people I work with are HIV positive,” Meas Chanthan said.
Condom use is gradually becoming more widespread, but until very recently it was frowned upon by homosexuals, who often believe that only women’s blood transmits STDs.
Virtually no research has been published on homosexual activity in Cambodia. But several health workers at the workshop said they have recently seen an increase both in the numbers of transgender prostitutes, and in HIV/AIDS infection among them.
Transsexuals may be universally rejected in public, but in private they mostly earn a living by servicing clients generally considered heterosexual—many of whom are married.
It’s considered acceptable for these ‘heterosexual’ men to visit transsexual prostitutes, workshop participants said. But the sex workers themselves are subject to a widespread and often vicious stigma, making it almost impossible for them to live lives beyond the margins of brothels and street-based sex-work, workshop participants said.
Education and increased awareness on HIV/AIDS transmission and safe-sex practices are invaluable, but until the stigma surrounding homosexuality lessens, little will change for transsexuals like Sav Voneath, workshop participants concluded.
“It’s very important to encourage gay men to live openly in society,” said one homosexual man at the workshop who did not want to give his name. “If gay men are left alone in society, they will become sex workers,” he continued.
“Now that this workshop has recognized us, it’s not strange when men have sex with men.”