Eugenie Thibaudier’s words spill out of her like a sack of rice split clear down the middle. Her bright eyes are teeming with excitement as her lips spew a seemingly endless list of potential opportunities on the horizon at L Bar — the city’s sole lesbian establishment.
“We thought if we’re the first and only lesbian bar we can make much more out of this…we started with OK let’s have a variety of books — all with gay, lesbian, feminism— actually we could sell some clothes too because it’s so hard to find unisex clothes. Then we thought, we have a space upstairs, we can have a gallery, we can have workshops. Let’s do a movie screening, let’s do a spoken word, it all just evolved.”
The relatively new space, which celebrated its grand opening on October 2, is the brainchild of two openly gay entrepreneurs: Thibaudier, a German native, and Mathilde Thillay from France. When Thibaudier came out as a lesbian to her family and friends eight years ago it was the stuff that after-school TV specials are made of.
“I was always really girly-girly… no one suspected that I was gay… I was kind of afraid that people would be disappointed and think differently of me.
[But] I was lucky, I didn’t have any negative feedback, no matter if it was my mom, my workplace, even my strict Catholic grandparents.”
Thillay’s story is a similar one. Growing up in the city of Normandy, she was privy to a visible and vibrant LGBT community. She was also very lucky to have had two people in her family come out before her — serving in essence as opening acts that would set the stage for her performance.
“I mean it was funny. One day my grandfather, just as a joke, said ‘Yeah, we already have one gay in our family we don’t need anymore’,” she says with a chiding laugh.
“I said, ‘Ah shame’, but they accepted it … I think everyone already knew about me so they were just like, ‘OK, do what you want’.”
But for Thibaudier, who spent her youth in a rural town of 20,000 people, the lack of a gay community with whom she could identify with deeply affected her.
“I never knew gay people, I grew up in a village. I never saw a gay or lesbian person until I was 19 or 20, so I was struggling,” she admits.
This and the painful awareness that stories like theirs are most often not the norm —especially in Cambodia, where lesbians still face heavy discrimination— drove them to attempt to create a safe space where women who like women could feel free to be themselves.
Sidara Nuon, a coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), says lesbians in Cambodia face multiple levels of prejudice and stigmatization.
“Lesbian communities still face significant challenges in Cambodia due to a lack of understanding among the general population and deeply embedded cultural norms which place enormous value on traditional heterosexual marriage and having children.
“These issues are compounded in the case of lesbian women by the issue of gender inequality. In effect, lesbians in Cambodia face double discrimination: first as women, second as LGBT people.”
Thillay says she herself has been a victim of unwanted attention and snide jeers on the streets of Phnom Penh, experiences she figures would only be multiplied if she were a local woman.
“Just to walk in the street, because I have short hair everyone calls me ‘boy’ or sometimes when I’m with my girlfriend I can just hear the tuk-tuk [drivers]. I can’t understand it because they say it in Khmer — but just how they say it. You can understand they’ve said something really bad about you. If they say bad things about expat people, I cannot imagine how it is with local people.”
Fear of ridicule, exclusion and much worse has pushed most of the city’s lesbians to social media — Facebook and Tinder namely — deeming it much safer to look for love online rather than risk the peril of being branded with a scarlet letter ‘L’. Until now, it’s been virtually their only option.
While a bar still presents obstacles for local women who, if unmarried, traditionally live at home with their parents and might have difficulty explaining the reasons behind their evening adventures — in casting a wider net, L Bar: Movies, Art, Shop, is much more inviting. The two owners hope to focus specifically on issues affecting local lesbians through a series of workshops to be held in Khmer with English translation. From discussions on human rights and sexual health to art and poetry, the women hope to execute a dialogue with the help of local NGOs that are well-versed on the issues hitting the LGBT community the hardest — among them suicide.
“Very often [discrimination] comes from families who will refuse to accept a lesbian child, and may often try to “cure” them by taking them to a traditional Khmer doctor. Very often, it also leads to attempts by parents to force their child into a heterosexual marriage, which in turn can lead to marital rape. These difficulties can lead to serious mental health problems and often suicide attempts,” says Nuon, whose organization is in talks with L Bar about the possibility of hosting future events.
Karen Owens, a sexologist and Khema International Clinic consultant, will be partnering with the bar to host a workshop on female sexual health and pleasure. The registered nurse of 30 years says an understanding of feminine sexuality is key in developing a positive sense of self.
“It’s about safe sex, it’s about embracing your sexuality, exploring our diversity as sexual beings and being able to accept ourselves. [It’s] also about a women being in control…If we don’t feel comfortable in our skin how can we expect someone else to be comfortable with us sexually?”
Although the ladies are clear that first and foremost, their space was created with lesbian women in mind, they are equally as clear that everyone is welcome — as long as they come with an open mind.
“I think that if I would’ve grown up and there was something like a lesbian bar, I would have gone there, and just had the feeling like OK there are other people like me.
Because if you have the feeling like you’re the only one — I don’t know, you just feel different, and especially at a young age that’s the last thing you want to be.”
L Bar will host its second Spoken Word open mic next Thursday, October 21 at 7pm.