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Martin Foreman

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Borsorbor at the Golden Banana

Siem Reap, Cambodia, May 2004: It's the middle of the day and five of us are having lunch in the courtyard of the Golden Banana, Siem Reap's (and probably Cambodia's) only "gay-friendly" hotel (click on the picture on the right). Angkor Wat is under twenty miles away, but I've been there twice before and this is a business trip. There's Sophat, my contact on this fact-finding trail; Phearum, my translator; a colleague of Sophat's and our driver, both of whom have names that I have not been able to catch. It's

The Golden Banana
taken us five hours to drive the 300 km from Phnom Penh and we're relaxing over a beer while waiting for our lunch. The day is hot, but we're cooled by a fan and we're enjoying our surroundings in this quiet backwater, surrounded by trees and plants and the newly-built chalets.

For most of the journey, as my four companions talked and joked in Khmer, I stared out of the window at the endless plain we drove across, criss-crossed by dried up rice paddies and punctuated at intervals by tall palm trees. Every so often we drove through a village or small town. The houses were on stilts, the older, wooden ones with palm leaf roofs, perched on rickety dead tree trunks that threatened to collapse under the first wind, the newer ones trim and smart on their upright concrete pillars. Motorbikes were the affordable and ubiquitous transportation, except for the hordes of white-shirted and blue skirted or -trousered schoolchildren who flooded the roads on their ancient bikes.

Over lunch, however, I could bring the conversation back to English and the goal of my trip: to learn what was known about the sexual networks of men who have sex with men in Cambodia. In almost every meeting I had had, however, I had tripped over the problem that nobody seemed sure what we were talking about. Yes, men had sex with men in Cambodia, but there were two kinds of such men: short hair and long hair. otherwise known as srey sros ("pretty girls") and pros saat ("handsome men"). Pretty girls with their long hair and feminine mannerisms can't hide in Khmer society, while short haired handsome men can pretend that they really love women. That much was agreed on - eventually - but other problems arose. Are short hairs really men who haven't grown their hair long, as one informant suggested? Does "handsome men" refer to all men, or only the men who have sex with men, or only the men who have sex with men and are willing to admit it? And what's this division between MSM (men who have sex with men - an acronym I have long disliked: read here) and "real men", who also have sex with men?

To try and cut through the confusion, I'd arranged to meet Chart. P.  Cambodia's gay activist, the evening before coming to Siem Reap. Chart, a short, intense, energetic designer who has spent half his life in the US, surely had both the Western and Khmer perspective to explain the situation to me. So sitting in the Black Eagle, Phnom Penh's (and Cambodia's) only exclusively gay bar, half-watching the part time rent boys play pool, I listened to Chart's explanation of terms. Listened, and had my suspicions confirmed. There is uncertainty over terms, because not only are terms new, but so is the concept. The idea of men having sex is new in Cambodian society. The closest Khmer can get to the idea is kteuy, a term close in meaning to transgender. Only kteuy is more of an insult than a statement or a compliment and those who would once be called kteuy now prefer the term pretty girl.

Chart's hair was definitely short. What do you call yourself in Khmer, I asked him. Short hair? Gay? He shook his head. A man who loves men. Not MSM he insisted - in either English or Khmer. Not sex. Love is better than sex.  So what was the Khmer term he put on the leaflets of the parties he organised? Man-love-man. Women-love-women for lesbian. And pretty girl for transgenders - except not all pretty girls are transgenders. but that's another detail that gets lost in the discussion.

Wind forward 16 hours to the Golden Banana. What, I asked Phearum, was the transliteration of the Khmer term for a man / men who love(s) men (Khmer is one of the lucky languages that doesn't have a plural form.) He took a pen and my notepad and wrote boros sralanh boros. It's very long, I said. Maybe it will be supplanted by "gay". He and Sophat shook their heads. "Gay" is too foreign, too suggestive of pretty girl. But boros sralanh boros doesn't trip off the tongue easily, I pointed out. You could say bros sralanh bros Phearum suggested.

Two syllables shorter, but still a mouthful. Some new term is bound to emerge, I said, something to describe the emerging awareness of both short and long hairs that there is a community, and potentially a culture of men have have sex with / love men. Something short and snappy. How about bor sor bor? Phearum suggested; more accurately, sincewrittenCambodiandoesnotseparatewords - borsorbor. Like MSM but nicer, said Sophat, more Khmer and less emphasis on sex. As our two other companions listened, Sophat and Phearum repeated the word several times. They liked it. They could see it catching on. "Are you borsorbor?" Sophat asked. Maybe, said the driver. More like borsorbeer, I suggested, indicating his glass. He smiled and nodded.

So now we have a Khmer word for MSM, Sophat said. No! I said, you don't. There's a difference. Borsorbor are men who want to have sex with them. But lots of MSM only have sex with men for money, or because there are no women around. I had heard enough stories in the previous 48 hours to convince me that there was an epidemic of drunken, nominally heterosexual men being waylaid late at night in the toilets of bars by long-hair, and sometimes short-haired, men looking for quick sexual partners. Men who prefer women aren't borsorbor. Sophat nodded doubtfully. Well, I thought, it doesn't really matter. You can't dictate how a word is used, particularly when it isn't your language. Anyway, for the first time in my life, I had been present at the birth of a neologism; for history's sake and mention in future editions of the Khmer version of the Oxford English Dictionary, I noted the date: it was Wednesday 12 May 2004 - A Day That Should Go Down In History.

History is history because time passes. Three hours later the three of us were in the suburbs, in the yard of an anonymous house that served as the offices and training grounds for Long Hairs who learned about HIV/AIDS to pass on the information to their friends and peers. They talked about their lives and their dreams. They were all young, and all dressed very effeminately and all wanted "real men" as their longterm partners, but although they sometimes called themselves Pretty Girls, they didn't want to have a sex change, at least partly because they had heard that those who did become women died young. One was in tears every night because her boyfriend was marrying a real woman that day; another bore the parallel scars on her arm that told of the time when deeply unhappy she had cut herself; a third joked about how she was beaten up by a gang of men offended by his effeminacy and how she had managed to run away; others, no doubt, had been raped but did not talk about it. All were proud of the work they were doing with both long and short hair, telling them about HIV and how to protect themselves, and proud of standing up in the community and saying I am a Pretty Girl - respect me.

As the sun set, Sophat, Phearum and the group leader drove off into the countryside and eventually down a dusty dirt track through a small forest, passing the occasional man on a bicycle or shack where a young woman sat patiently to sell a rare customer stopped a can of something or packet of something else. Here and there in the fading light through the trees could be spotted the poorest houses I had seen so far. Eventually we turned off the road and drove through an arch that marked the entry to a village and soon stopped. Small children, naked, half-naked or in the dustiest old clothes watched we walked towards one of the houses. At the back an old man in blue shorts and a body covered in long-faded tattoos squatted on the ground hacking a piece of bamboo into shape for a structure that I could not identify. He smiled an acknowledgement at us and carried on his work.

In the next fifteen minutes, emerged out of the gloom, on foot or on bicycle, over twenty youths, most in their late teens, a few younger, to sit round a table in a small half-open hut in the corner of the yard. Some greeted each other quietly, others sat and waited, only a few glanced at the bald Westerner watching from a few feet away. A small fluorescent light attached to an unseen energy source was switched on. As Phearum whispered a translation to me, the son of the man in blue shorts, a 25 year old primary school teacher, explained my presence and said that today's topic was the impact of HIV on Cambodian society. What did they think that impact would be?

They're not long-hair, I whispered to Sophat and the group leader, who was watching. No, they're short hair. I looked again. A group of under twenty year olds in rural Cambodia who identify as men who have sex with men? Yes, this one had long fingernails, a couple had shirts that were bright or well-tailored, another's mannerisms were gentle and effeminate, one or two rested their arms on a friend's back. How many villages do they come from? I asked. Three - about 700 families overall. That meant 1 in 35 families had a young son who was becoming aware of his different sexuality. Not only that, but there was a group that welcomed him. And the teacher's family, I asked, they have no problem? Well, the mother knows that they are borsorbor - that word again - but the father thinks they're just talking about HIV.

The seminar was not going well - few seemed to understand the question and the answers were vague. But they were all paying attention. Lack of tv, I thought, lack of anything else to do - too dark to play football, no money or too far to go into town. So why not join this group of like-minded friends. There was a commotion above me. Against the night sky, I could see the silhouette of man climbing a palm a few away. There was a sawing sound and the thump as coconuts hit the ground. Five minutes later, one was thrust into my hand, a hole pierced and a straw inserted. It tasted good.

The teacher came up and in good English asked what I thought. I could only be complimentary. How do you get to know each other, I asked? At pagoda dances, he said. We see someone standing on his own, we get to know him, we go and talk to him, invite him to our meetings.

An hour later, I was on my way back to Siem Reap. I thought of gay rights groups back in London and the US - the offices, the telephones, the computers, the  suits and the rolodexes detailing members of Parliament and Congress. These young men had a long way to go before they felt comfortable expressing themselves in their society, but some of them, I was sure, would make it.

for more recent articles about gay life in Cambodia, click here
for another article about Angkor Wat Siem Reap, click here


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