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The rise and rise of the capital’s LGBT scene

Mark Tilly / Khmer Times Share:

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 sung their heart out to ‘It’s Raining Men’ and ‘Staying Alive’, international LGBT anthems that even more than a decade ago had reached Phnom Penh.
Mesterharm, born in Germany, where the LGBT community’s presence is broad and diverse, said he felt inclined to support the budding Cambodian scene.
“I found it charming. I grew up in a community that was and is still very open, lesbians, transgender, whatever, and it never really mattered to me,” he said.
“So when we opened Meta House, I said to them this is what I want to do, promote LGBT rights in Cambodia through events and ever since then we’re doing that.”
Since opening in 2007, Meta House has hosted eight Pride events featuring both exhibitions and film festivals, with the launch of this year’s event being held last night.
As the LGBT community has grown from strength to strength, Mesterharm has noticed the shift in tone in Pride events from one of advocacy, to that of celebration and entertainment.
“In the first years, the scene was much more NGO driven, more political, nowadays the same as everywhere in the world, it’s turned into something more entertaining,” he said.
While he emphasised advocating human rights for the LGBT community was important, it was a promising sign that more and more events in the Pride schedule were being held by a growing number of LGBT venues owned by LGBT community members.
“If you look at the current schedule, basically it’s not from the NGO businesses, but social businesses, queer businesses,” he said.
“There’s still empowerment work to do, but I think with Cambodia, compared to other parts of the world, is a relatively free and liberal environment for this community,” he said.
The opinion was shared by I Am What I Am’s David Hunt, who said Cambodia’s growing LGBT scene was a boon for the country in a region where the community has faced heightened discrimination in recent years.
“For people in the region, it seems to be tough in a lot of Southeast Asia,” he said.
“From the tourism side of it, that’s growing as well – in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville and Siem Reap, it’s become a very appealing destination.”
In Phnom Penh, there is a wide diversity of LGBT venues throughout the city, with old hand institutions such as Blue Chili and Heart of Darkness setting the bar. Meanwhile, there are talks of Street 174, featuring newly opened Valentino’s bistro and nightclub and Toolbox bar, becoming a LGBT district for the city.
It’s this diversity that Hunt wants to celebrate in this year’s Amazingly Fabulous Annual Tuk Tuk race tomorrow.
Being held for its fifth year, the race aims to act as pseudo parade for the LGBT community, with teams being sent to both well-known and hidden LGBT venues around the city to solve puzzles and clues, with prizes for the best-dressed tuk tuk.
While team registration closed on Monday, Hunt was astounded at the number of teams who signed up, leaping from 16 teams competing last year, to 64 being registered this year.
With the event being open to all ages, Hunt wanted to show of Phnom Penh’s LGBT venues, and the diversity of the community.
“We want to make sure people get to know these places that are very inclusive and will have learnt about some new places, so they all come together,” he said.
Meanwhile Meta House’s Pride film festival will feature both international and local LGBT films from around the world, from China to Pakistan, highlighting the global triumphs and struggles of the community.  
“I think what we’re doing here is really interesting, from entertainment, to educational, third world to first, we’re just collecting it,” Mesterharm said.

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