Love and survival through Khmer Rouge years

The above picture is of four women flanking a man in the centre. The women – constituting two life-long couples – were about to share their life stories at a workshop in Phnom Penh recently with about 34 gay activists from Cambodia’s Asean neighbours in the room (and about 50-60 more Cambodians).

I was among them, and I’m almost sure most of the Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) activists found it hard to see these women, hailing from the deep provinces of Cambodia, as “one of us”.

One of the things that modern gay movements tend not to discuss is the way we ourselves may hold class prejudices. Yet these prejudices arise all too easily from the origins of modern gay consciousness and its resulting discourse.

It’s like this: While homosexual orientation is as old as mammalian evolution, gay identity as a concept is relatively recent. The modern discourse, which is identity- and rights-based, also found its first flowering in urban capitals of Western countries. Coming to Asia, it is only to be expected that this kind of gay discourse first takes root among the middle-class, partly western-acculturated sections of our urban populations – thus the prevailing character of modern gay movements in Asian countries. The result is a stereotype of a “gay person” with precisely these characteristics, a stereotype that gay people themselves hold.

When the Singapore contingent came upon the Cambodian lesbian community at the workshop, I think we gasped. “They look like rice farmers!”  we said to ourselves, as if the thought had never occurred to us that farmers too could be gay. However, we had enough self-awareness to feel promptly embarrassed and were quick to admonish ourselves for our own classist reaction.

That said, the fact remained that they were not quite “gay” in the way we conceive of being gay. The couples modelled themselves very much on heterosexual lines, with one partner seeing herself as ‘husband’ and the other as ‘wife’. You could even tell from the way they dressed in the picture at top which ones were the husbands and which ones the wives. Even as they told their stories, only the husbands spoke. The wives just stood silently by their sides answering a question or two only when asked. The highly genderised roles they adopted are ones that same-sex couples, East and West (have you seen the film Albert Nobbs?)  might have adopted for eons, but because it’s something rejected by modern gay sensibilities, it comes across as strange to us today.

Their concerns were probably different too, which I will illustrate with this incident:

It occurred on a different day, and right after the team from the Philippines (or was it Thailand?) made a presentation about their recent efforts to engage the media. There was much discussion about reporters’ use of loaded terms, about their choice of lurid and sensational stories and what it took to correct them. Discussion also centred on (in)visibility on television and media representation generally.

And then a Cambodian woman from the audience, looking not much different from the four in the photo above, raised her hand to ask a question: In your country (Philippines), do women-who-love-women find it hard to get jobs?

We were on totally different wavelengths!

It is very easy to laugh and somehow pigeonhole these women as simpletons with utterly parochial concerns, but that would be so, so wrong. Their life stories would prove how much fortitude they have in them, how enduring their love for each other has been, and how much adversity they’ve had to go through. No city-slicker has anything close to boast of.

* * * * *

Their stories in three parts

“We decided to adopt children,” said Sot Yun, as translated by Srun Srorn. “In 1981, we adopted my cousin’s baby daughter, and in 1987 and 1991 we were given two more babies (boys) anonymously – we don’t know who exactly their parents were.

“Today, the older two are married and have given us six grandchildren. Our youngest boy is now in university.”

The other couple, Noy Sitha and Hong Sareun, have raised eight children, all given to them by their brothers and sisters. But it’s not as if their siblings accepted their relationship readily. Quite the opposite: winning acceptance was a long struggle.

* * * * *

“And so we were separated,” said Noy Sitha, referring to the worst moments she had to endure in the late 1970s, in the last months of the Khmers Rouges terror. After the Khmers Rouges were overthrown, “I had to go from place to place to look for my wife.

“Eventually I found her with other members of her family, but that was only the start of a new set of problems.”

The family objected to the relationship and Hong Sareun’s father insisted on marrying his daughter off to a man. “He tried many times to force her to get married,” recalled Sitha, “but her mother could see that I work very hard, I do heavy work like a man. Eventually she began to see that I was born this way and can do a man’s job.”

However, the mother kept her thoughts to herself for many years, as the father’s pressure piled up.

“So I withdrew to a temple and left her [Hong Sareun].

“But Yoon [Hong Sareun] couldn’t bear the separation either. She did not eat, got sick and got weaker and weaker. She wanted to die, we both did. Eventually, the family allowed me back to take care of her.”

But still the pressure to marry heterosexually was applied. The couple tried running away to Battambang province, but with no money and no means of livelihood, that plan didn’t work either. Back home they came, except that this time, they went to their village chief to ask for support.

“I asked him to please give me a plot of land,” recalled Sitha. “However, he hesitated. ‘How can you stay as a couple?’ he asked.”

“I said to him: ‘If you give me land, I will do the things that need to be done, otherwise I will cut off my hand and give it to you.’ “

It took a long while, but eventually the chief relented and assigned them a plot. On it, they built their own house with their bare hands. Among other crops, they grew sugar cane. They had to cut the long, heavy stalks and carry them to market.

Gradually, the other members of the family came to visit as a sign of grudging acceptance, and one day, a brother sent his baby son to live with them. The boy has grown up – the first of eight children – and will be getting married soon.

Some time later,  the village chief came by and offered to register them all as a family.

The other couple, Sot Yun and Sem Eang, went through a similar period of family objection through the 1980s. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, their brothers and sisters, who had been scattered by the Khmer Rouge, came back to the village.

“My older brother tried to break us up,” Sot Yun said. “He insisted that I live with him, not with my wife.”

Sot Yun had to put her foot down. “I said to my brother, ‘If I go to live with you, you can’t get my whole body, just the bones.’ ” The reference was to the lifeless remains after cremation.

Faced with Sot Yun’s adamant stand, the brother relented, but the couple could not be sure when a new attempt to split them up might arise again. “So we decided to adopt children.”

* * * * *

Sot Yun had first met her future wife Sem Eang in 1976, when the Khmers Rouges were in control, terrorising the entire Cambodian population. Millions would die from starvation and mass executions during the four years of their rule. They had to keep their relationship secret at the risk of their lives.

Noy Sitha and Hong Sareun too met each other in 1976. “At the time, under the Khmers Rouges, men and women had to live separately, in gender-segregated houses,” Sitha explained. So while they could be together, “we could not let others notice us as a couple. We would be killed.”

Unfortunately, one day, a Khmer Rouge soldier saw an act of kindness between them and began to suspect an illicit relationship. “I was punished,” said Sitha, “by being made to dig a trench in double-quick time.

“If I didn’t complete the task, I would be killed.”

Clearly, she managed.

She was caught a second time and, for punishment, she had to cart away a small hill, all the while with nothing except leaves to eat. But this time, the soldiers sent Hong Sareun away while Sitha was being punished.

“And so we were separated.”

* * * * *

It’s been hard living together, both couples agreed. “But the only way is to understand each other and not pay too much attention to others who talk bad about us,” advised Sot Yun.

“We want people around us to stop discriminating against us,” said Noy Sitha. She pressed the point home that she could do everything a man can do, and that she and her wife have even raised a family. “Raising children is a big responsibility.”

22 Responses to “Love and survival through Khmer Rouge years”


  1. 1 p 29 May 2012 at 18:04

    heartbreaking

  2. 2 Rabbit 30 May 2012 at 01:35

    An extremely touching story. I hope some directors can turn them into movie. I truly admire their perseverance wanting to be together in time of war and peace. Sadly speaking I have not seen any out local gay couple attained such level of commitment. It was never an easy journey but the couple felt being in relationship is something worth struggling for. Such gay love is very pure and even thicker than some others heterosexual relationship.

    Just two nights ago, a Chinese DJ on 100.4FM radio invited two guests to discuss homosexuality among other topics. I was expecting the discussion to be more matured and objective but both guests, straight woman and man, kept insisting that gay is an option, a choice, a sudden altered orientation due to “unfortunate” circumstances and gay can be changed, they have witnessed such changes. The DJ even threw in his support on moral ground, killing his supposed neutrality of being a host to the program. I rather these self-righteous anti-gay people spend more time researching how to cure AIDs than trying the impossible to change Gay people, the former is still achievable even if it takes a life time

    • 3 Erica 30 May 2012 at 20:50

      Rabbit, I hope such ignorant, biased, and harmful broadcasting does not go unchallenged. Is it possible to make a complaint to the MDA?

    • 4 kanikosen 31 May 2012 at 00:34

      @rabbit

      It’s not 100.4, it’s actually 100.3, a Chinese radio station controlled by sph. And I believe what you’ve heard is actually a “counseling” program, where the woman and man are counselors, and the host is a guest DJ who’s a social worker. Yes, i heard that part about them discussing about homosexuality, and in fact, one week prior, they answered a listener’s concerns about her son being a homosexual and seeing an older man. And guess what their advice was? Other than emphasizing that homosexuality is wrong and unnatural, they told this mother to have faith that if her son really loves her, he would eventually “see the light”, and he would turn straight and form a “proper” family with a woman. What audacity, right? What kind of counselors would advise a mother to use her son’s love for her to force him to turn straight?

      So I did a little online search on the counseling center they mentioned they are working for, and it turns out they are all (including the host) under Touch Community Services, a charity organization linked to a christian church, so I guess it’s no surprise that they hold such views towards homosexuality despite them calling themselves “counselors”.

      • 5 alternatve 31 May 2012 at 15:04

        Do you know the personal beliefs of the people involved? If not, its premature to draw a correlation.

      • 6 Erica 31 May 2012 at 17:18

        These people do a lot of harm, as professional counselling/ psychotherapy organisations around the world have pointed out. One has recently been suspended in the UK for telling a client they could change his orientation, and California has just passed a law banning “therapies” for minors that claim to be able to change their sexual orientation. These quacks can do massive psychological damage, leading in some cases to suicide. They should NOT be on the radio spreading their brand of judgemental “counselling”.

      • 7 kanikosen 1 June 2012 at 00:21

        @alternative

        No, I don’t know that as I don’t recall them speaking about their personal beliefs in the program. But the way in which they approach the subject of homosexuality is awfully similar to how vocal Christians who are opposed to homosexuality would respond. For example, they claimed that homosexuals are a result of dysfunctional families with abusive fathers, they claimed to have homosexual friends, but they strongly disapprove of their friends’ lifestyle choice, and they even stated that they support retaining 377a.

        And I actually found the recording of this program on the internet. For those who can understand mandarin, you can try listening to what they said to arrive at your own conclusion. The link is http://soundcloud.com/user4259327/sets/5-27-part-2. They started the discussion on homosexuality in Part 5.

      • 8 Erica 2 June 2012 at 01:14

        Something I didn’t expect when googling the background to the organisation but there is apparently a link to C.Peter Wagner himself. So this is possibly theocratic seven mountains territory, where one of the mountains, or keys, to gain influence or control of, is the media.

  3. 9 ricardo 30 May 2012 at 06:00

    Whatever your orientation, If you aren’t affected by these stories of true love & commitment, you are probably not human. Some relationships transcend labels.

    “In your country (Philippines), do women-who-love-women find it hard to get jobs?” In the final analysis, this is the type of discrimination we have to fight. Legal rights of marriage including eligibility for HDB flats etc. are in this category.

    In Singapore, Act 377A hanging over all such relationships, needs to go.

  4. 10 beccacsw 30 May 2012 at 11:09

    Reblogged this on andshesaidlistentome and commented:
    Humanity

  5. 11 Poker Player 30 May 2012 at 11:16

    Gay marriage and gay adoption developing organically independently of Western influences. One more for the repartee repertoire.

  6. 12 alternatve 30 May 2012 at 12:23

    Hi,

    Thank you for the article, especially the part on class differences within the gay community. I admit it was something that I was blind towards even though I knew (logically) that differences must exist within any community.

    Their struggle to remain together through the most trying odds puts to shame the stereotypical hollywood fluff about love. Having escaped death and disability, I hope that they find love, understanding and acceptance within their community.

  7. 13 ape@kinjioleaf 30 May 2012 at 17:53

    Should there be any surprise that homosexual couples adopt the social construct of one doing the husband chores and the other doing the wife’s?
    If we can accept heterosexual husband being a homemaker while the wife a successful career woman who brings in the bacon, what difference does it make to homosexuals?
    Nevertheless, human rights in Asia is still a long and arduous journey.

  8. 14 Saycheese 30 May 2012 at 23:57

    A very touching story.
    The lesbian couples raised kids that are straight, so environment may not be a factor for gay orientation. These couples took on genderised roles.
    What about the roles of male gay couples in raising kids? Are they normally successful in raising well-adjusted kids?

    • 15 Erica 31 May 2012 at 17:55

      Yes they are. Studies in America confirm they do as well as those of straight couples. Children of lesbian couples have been shown to do better than those of straight couples. All do even better when their parents are allowed to marry. The studies were referred to and accepted by both sides in the proposition 8 trials in California (which removed the ban on marriage equality for gay couples) .

  9. 16 Rabbit 1 June 2012 at 01:20

    @ kanikosen

    Thanks for shedding more light about 100.3 radio station controlled by SPH and therein the counsellors’ linkage to Touch Community Services. I chanced upon 100.3 station for chinese songs but it was “interrupted” by small talks occassionally. I thought the “homosexual topic” was a one-time discussion. You mentioned two weeks prior to that fateful night they have delivered similar nonsensical view to the audience, I suspect they will not stop doing so unless SPH put an immediate stop to all these christian driven program to discriminate and make unfounded views about gay people,

    @ Erica

    Singapore has no law to protect gay people from being discriminated, otherwise SPH wouldn’t have such audacity to allow certain christian group to air divisive and misleading views thru their radio station.

  10. 18 Tyson 1 June 2012 at 19:35

    What incredible fortitude and love..I think these women’s stories should be made into a movie.

    Actually, among the Chinese speaking lesbian community here, Taiwan, and China, there are many couples who also follow this heterosexual model. In lesbian parlance, the wives are 婆 (“wives” in chinese) and the husbands “T’s”.. you can meet many such couples here.

    I believe many lesbian couples undergo the similar challenges these couples face, except for the very upper middle class. As a lesbian, I planned for my career from a young age. A decent job and earning power are important keys in the freedom to live lesbian life – if you can support yourself and a home, the more likely your independence is assured. That is why many lesbians opened the doors for women in medicine, law, education and other professions.

    On another note. It’s atrocious that Touch is spreading their lies through the radio. Touch community services is an extremely conservative group. I believe I saw an exorcism being performed at their centre in marine parade some years ago.

    The American Psychological Association and an arm of the World Health Organization has warned that conversion therapy forms a serious threat to health and well bring. California is also moving to outlaw conversion therapy. (http://www.advocate.com/health/2012/05/30/california-moves-closer-outlawing-reparative-therapy)

  11. 19 chasbelov 2 June 2012 at 18:04

    Touching story.

    Actually, butch/femme is not that unusual for lesbian couples these days in the U.S. Not saying it is still the rule it once was but it is not rare either.

  12. 20 Poker Player 4 June 2012 at 12:07

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/01/us-gay-greenlatern-idUSBRE85017H20120601

    Cambodia, this…Some Singaporeans are just going to have to be frogs in wells to keep their world view.

  13. 21 Gilgamesh 6 June 2012 at 14:17

    a GLBT story that’s more on the T side, I think. Thanks for the unusual story, YB :)

  14. 22 Khmer music 30 June 2012 at 10:47

    I think the international Khmer Rouge tribunal is a farce at best. There is no way that trying five surviving members of the Khmer Rouge leadership will bring either justice or closure to the millions of innocent victims who have perished or are still reeling from their genocidal rule. I think the focus should be on education and raising awareness so that similar atrocities do not happen again.


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