Cambodia's First Lesbian Bar
It’s almost sundown, and Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak neighborhood is a hodgepodge of activity. The evening call to prayer echoes from the city’s Al-Serkal mosque, its piercing white minarets silhouetted against the darkening sky. Muslim women, members of the Cham minority, sit chatting near the halal shops and restaurants that line the streets opposite the mosque, while children run around full of the signature exuberance of young people with few responsibilities.
Down a little side road lies Boeung Kak’s main drag, the walls covered in graffiti from bygone days when foreign artists and activists claimed the neighborhood as their own. Boeung Kak has gone through many transformations over the past decade; once, it was a popular tourist destination for people enjoying what was Phnom Penh’s largest urban lake, where local families eked out a living by fishing and renting rooms to visitors. But in early 2007, city hall announced that it had leased 133 hectares of the area, a plot that included the lake itself, to an unknown development firm associated with a senator from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Since then, the lake has been filled with dirt and sand, and around 4,000 families have been forcibly evicted. Amnesty International called it Cambodia’s largest forced eviction since the era of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.
For some years, a large protest movement kept the neighborhood alive. Foreigners arrived to show solidarity with the evicted residents, painting the walls with murals and colorful slogans. People were beaten by police, formed neighborhood associations, and poured their energy into fighting the injustice of the eviction - but today, only a few dozen families are still fighting with city hall over compensation for their homes. The area’s time in the limelight has passed, and the price of real estate has dropped dramatically. Shops and hotels have closed their doors, and only the dregs of Cambodia’s expat scene still hang around Boeung Kak, often drunk or sleeping in hammocks by two in the afternoon.
It was within this changing landscape that a pair of entrepreneurial young women decided to do something unprecedented in Boeung Kak: a year ago, they opened Cambodia’s first bar for lesbians.
“We thought it would be a good location because it’s a one-way street and it would be comfortable for Khmer people to come without necessarily bumping into family or something,” explains Mathilde Thillay, the French co-founder of L Bar. Mathilde opened the bar after having lived in Cambodia for several years and discovering the country had nowhere for lesbians to socialize.
“This place has a lot of potential,” she says.
Despite being a socially conservative country where families enforce strict gender norms, being openly gay in Cambodia isn’t as dangerous as some might expect. The city has a plethora of gay bars, including one with weekly performances by the city’s most talented and flashy drag queens, and these are generally able to operate without fear of violent attacks or harassment. In February, a new nightclub opened with the unlikely promise of becoming Asia’s largest gay club.
Most recently, the government took the advice of LGBTQ rights activists and agreed to begin incorporating lessons about diverse gender identities and sexual orientation in schools. Families often turn a blind eye to the sexual activities of their gay sons, viewing youthful experimentation as harmless. But gay people in Cambodia do still face some discrimination, and many feel pressured to enter into a heterosexual marriage eventually. It’s especially hard for the country’s lesbians to be open about their identities: according to a 2010 report by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, lesbian relationships are “particularly incomprehensible” to Cambodian society.
Throughout the country, Cambodian women are expected to follow a strict form of social conduct known as Chbab Srey, which roughly translates to “rules for girls.” According to these rules, being a “good woman” means being meek and submissive, marrying a man and catering to your husband’s needs, and generally staying home and being modest. Women are expected to be pure and virginal until marriage. Up until 2007, many of these rules were taught in schools. This atmosphere makes it difficult for women to go out and socialize, let alone meet other women for romantic partnership.
As a result, Cambodia’s lesbian scene has existed mostly online and underground. Many of the country’s young lesbians have two personal Facebook accounts, one for their families and another for the LGBTQ community. Women typically meet through online groups and go out on coffee dates posing as friends. One of the most popular groups has almost 30,000 members and is filled with pictures of Khmer lesbian couples posing together in romantic embraces or going on hikes in the countryside with their friends.
Until L Bar opened, there was nowhere for women to meet other women offline. According to Zey Toch, a 22-year-old lesbian from Phnom Penh, L Bar has succeeded in making it easier for lesbians to meet in person.
“I'm happy the L bar exists because it's the first lesbian bar - it proves that the mentality is evolving,” Toch said. “But one of the biggest challenges in Cambodia for me is the fact that [a woman] should marry a man before she's 25. This is a huge barrier for us lesbians. I just wish that I was allowed to marry a woman.”
For now, marriage equality is a long way off. But L Bar has succeeded in raising awareness about the lesbian community in a country where lesbians were systematically ignored and sidelined, even within the wider queer community. This year, the bar participated in the city’s annual gay pride event. Instead of marching down the street, Phnom Penh celebrates gay pride by organizing a scavenger hunt using LGBT-friendly tuk-tuks, a local form of transportation that involved attaching a carriage to the back of a motorbike. They are placed throughout the city and filled with clues and challenges for participants.
“We had our own tuk-tuk for gay pride, and we had a party here. We have gotten a lot of attention,” Mathilde describes. “Gay pride was amazing. Last year they only had 16 tuk-tuks…but this year there were 69, and more than 200 people participated.”
Currently, Mathilde says Cambodia’s LGBTQ community isn’t ready to block major highways to stage a gay pride parade. But she thinks the tuk-tuks help to increase the community’s visibility.
“[They all] had to be decorated for gay pride. So we had all of these little tuk-tuks on small streets where normally no one [would] see you. I think you touch more people in this way,” she says.
Meanwhile, the bar hosts frequent events to organize the city’s lesbian community. They hold monthly spoken word poetry events to showcase both Khmer and foreign poets, and the bar provides artists and photographers with a free gallery to display their work. They have a shop in the bar that sells vintage clothes and menstrual cups, and this month they held the city’s first feminist film festival.
“We showed a few documentaries about women’s rights, LGBTQ issues, and violence against women and trans people,” says Mathilde. “And then we had speakers come from different NGOs. Next month, we’ll have two Khmer painters putting on an exhibition.”
The events attract a wide audience of queer, straight, foreign, and local patrons, and Mathilde says she hopes their activities will help revive the Boeung Kak neighborhood by attracting more business and investment in infrastructure.
“We have been lucky. In one year, we haven’t seen any police coming to harass us. Everyone in the neighborhood is [very] helpful,” she says, looking out at the dark, dusty road.
A few small children and feral dogs walk past the rainbow flags hanging at the bar’s entrance, and a lone man smokes a cigarette against a crumbling, graffiti-filled wall.
“But I wish they would put up streetlights.”