About 100 people in rainbow-flag-draped tuk-tuks and eclectic outfits will descend on Phnom Penh on Saturday afternoon for the third “Amazingly Fabulous Pride Tuk-Tuk Race,” a show of support for Cambodia’s LGBT community.
The race is part of this week’s 12th annual Cambodia Gay Pride Week celebrations, which began last weekend ahead of Tuesday’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.
Originally launched as a one-off event in 2012, the colorful race was brought back last year owing to the enthusiasm of local businesses eager to promote an inclusive, LGBT-tolerant society, said organizer David Hunt, a British expatriate who has lived and worked as a teacher in Phnom Penh for 10 years.
“Lots of people really remembered it [from last year]—it’s a very visual event, obviously—with lots of people taking photos and getting involved,” Mr. Hunt said.
Mr. Hunt said the participants—and even some of the tuk-tuk drivers—are predominantly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, with teams made up of both Cambodians and foreigners.
“We try to make sure it’s as inclusive as it possibly can be,” he said, adding that the race’s instructions—which come in the form of a crossword puzzle—are in a mix of Khmer and English.
Mr. Hunt’s event even inspired a visiting Canadian woman to open up about her sexual orientation to her family last year.
“She sent an email about three weeks later saying [the race] gave her the courage to come out to her family back in Canada, and she attributed that to having had that experience here in Cambodia,” he said.
Mr. Hunt had been running similar tuk-tuk races for children and families for several years, but it wasn’t until local LGBT rights group Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK)—which formed after 2009’s Pride Week—approached him four years ago that the LGBT pride theme emerged.
Since last year, popular LGBT-friendly businesses such as Blue Chilli and Rambutan Resort, as well as Cambodian clothing label Kool As U, have jumped on board to help sponsor the event.
Although the week—which is themed “I Am What I Am” for the second year in a row—mainly drums up images of positive steps forward in Cambodia’s still largely culturally-conservative society, there are still LGBT Cambodians who feel they need to hide their true sexuality or identified gender.
“I know there will come a point when I will have to tell my family—like when my mother starts asking more about marriage—but for now, I prefer they don’t know,” said a 24-year-old foreign languages student and photographer based in Phnom Penh, who asked to remain anonymous, adding that his classmates and most of his friends did not know he was gay either.
“I have a classmate who is very openly gay, and he is susceptible to mockery,” he said.
“He does not appear to care about the jokes, but they would destroy me,” he said, adding that he “tones down” his persona so nobody suspects he is gay.
His classroom encounters echo the results of a survey released in December by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, which showed that of the 62.71 percent of LGBT respondents who experienced bullying in school, 93.59 percent said it was partly or entirely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Although the student said he had been heavily involved in organizing events for Gay Pride Week, he will not be participating in the tuk-tuk race on Saturday out of fear of being seen at such a public affair.
Asked if he thinks similar experiences would persuade some LGBT Cambodians to avoid the race, Mr. Hunt said the situation depends on the person. “We’ve got members of the Cambodian youth here who are really out and proud and others who—understandably, because of the nature of everyone having different families and networks—aren’t quite there yet,” he said.