The scene is bolstered partly by Web sites like Cambodia Out, which started in early 2009 and is believed to be the first commercial site in the country devoted to the gay community. Other sites like Utopia and Sticky Rice, which appeal to gay people throughout Southeast Asia, have also raised the city’s profile.
But the new spots also reflect a growing acceptance, in a country that still hews to age-old Khmer values and where the concept of homosexuality seemed nonexistent until recently. In fact, there is no word for “gay” in Khmer. The most commonly used term is kteuy or ladyboys, based on the misperception by many Cambodians that homosexuals and transvestites are one and the same.
The stereotypes are slowly fading. In 2004, after watching thousands of same-sex couples in San Francisco rush to the altar, Cambodia’s much-loved King Norodom Sihanouk wrote on his Web site that gays should be allowed to marry because God loved a “wide range of tastes.”
His successor and son, King Norodom Sihamoni, holds similar views. “The Cambodian Royal Family, as a whole, share the same point of view as the King-Father,” Sisowath Thomico, a spokesman for the royal family, wrote in an e-mail message. “We’ve always been very tolerant about sexual preferences as some Khmer Royals are/were openly gays/lesbians.”
The new open-mindedness is attributed to Theravada Buddhism, the predominant religion in Cambodia. “When you’re looking at Buddhist countries, you’re going to encounter an openness and tolerance,” said Caroline Francis, a spokeswoman for the Cambodia field office of Family Health International, a public health organization involved with gay-related health issues. “The religious teachings aren’t being used to arrest or persecute people because they’re gay or lesbian.”
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