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A Place To Be Yourself: a safe haven for LGBTI people in Cambodia

A Place To Be Yourself: a safe haven for LGBTI people in Cambodia

a person sits on a couch smiling at the camera

Siem Reap is a beautiful historical destination famous for the Angkor Wat Temple Complex. It, likewise, has a vibrant young LGBTIQ community.

It has an existing queer scene and there is also a thriving LGBTIQ community center.

A Place To Be Yourself (APTBY) provides a safe resource sharing, professional counseling and advocacy building environment for the local community.

It works to provide the local LGBTIQ community with basic information, health care and mental health support.

The center is located on a quaint street about 15 minutes walk from well-known Pubstreet and Old Market, the center of Siem Reap.

The whole space alone is managed by a mother and son duo. Jason Argenta, a counselor by profession and an Australian living in Siem Reap, is the director of the APTBY Center on the second floor, while his mother manages the Purple Mango Wellness Center in the same building.

Originally Jason’s passion project, APTBY is self-sustaining with a good platform of engagement with the local LGBTIQ-owned  establishments.

Jason describes APTBY as a ‘drop-in center and resource center where people can just “be” and come and meet others’. Inspired by Jason’s experience in an LGBTIQ NGO back in Australia, one of the center’s goals is to ensure that Siem Reap has available services for the LGBTIQ community much like in bigger and more industrialized cities.

Jason and some volunteers at A Place to Be Yourself in Siem Reap
Jason and some volunteers at A Place to Be Yourself in Siem Reap | Photo: Justin Francis Bionat

Language matters

There is only one local term in Khmer that describes the whole LGBTIQ community. So, the folks at APTBY undertook the tedious effort of translating each identity, such as lesbian (girls who love girls), to the local Khmer language. They believe that this is one way for the local community to actually identify with the acronyms and feel like their sexuality and gender is not an anomaly.

This is also very much useful in developing the materials and posters that they use to raise awareness.

‘The local Khmer gay and lesbians don’t even know their rights here,’ Jason said.

‘Like if they see a post on Facebook, of two guys getting married they would think it’s legal here. They don’t know the actual law and how it relates to them.’

But the community actually has been given a environment to express themselves because there are gay club scenes and a yearly pride month celebration, since 2015, in Siem Reap.

A Place to Be Yourself

APTBY has done gender and sexuality workshops on the history of LGBTIQ identities in Cambodia, in both English and Khmer. They had community events like fundraisers, drag competitions, and quiz nights. They are currently developing a workshop specifically on transgender identities.

A success story of how APTBY has given back to the community, is one on a local transgender man named Pov. He used to be a volunteer with APTBY but because of generous donations and support from partners, now works full time in APTBY as support staff.

With much needed counseling services provided by local Khmer people, Pov was given the opportunity to learn English. He also did a Professional Health Counseling course in Phnom Penh. This was made all possible because of the support of the center.

‘I could have done it myself but I just feel like all this stuff should come from the community,’ Jason said.

This makes Pov’s involvement in the center indispensable.

What’s next for APTBY?

Many people come to Siem Reap with big dreams especially because this city is full of opportunities. The big dream for APTBY is to raise awareness that there is a safe place for them here.

‘Last month, we actually didn’t get any actual walk-in visitors, so I’m not thinking like no one needs us, why are we here?’ Jason said.

He recognizes that walking into a center like this can be intimidating. So they focus on other ways to reach out to the local community.

It’s not all about activities though, APTBY has stats and numbers on how many people the center actually helped. This is especially important when they talk to the local establishments and potential partners.

At the moment APTBY, survives on crowdfunding sites and local fundraisers. With plans to do monthly activities on sexual and mental health, they need a lot of support from the international and local community.

Justin Francis Bionat (@rainbowgrindsph) is a Masters degree student from Mahidol University, Thailand. He is a project officer at Youth Voices Count. It is a regional network of young LGBTIQ individuals working on human rights advocacy. Justin is the LGBTIQ representative of the United Nations Youth Advisory Board (UNYAB) in the Philippines. He is passionate about coffee and everything queer.

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