Chhoueng Sovannarith is a technical officer at FHI 360 in Cambodia, where he’s responsible for M-Style, an umbrella brand covering a range of programs.
Being a man who has sex with a man (MSM) is very new in Cambodian culture and the general population finds the idea difficult to accept. When people meet MSM here, they tend to be uneasy or even unwilling to believe that the person has a natural inclination toward someone of the same sex. Imagine how much harder it is to be “sok veng” (“long hair,” transgender). Kim Houch knows this all too well.
Kim Houch was a single child in the family in Banteay Mean Chey Province, in northwest Cambodia, near the Thai border. He tells me that he has felt like a woman since he reached the age of having sex. He never thought of himself as a man. That’s difficult for both Houch and his parents, particularly when people in the community do not recognize a man as a woman. Even when he went to school in a boy’s uniform, he disliked it.
In school, it is very strange for a man to wear a woman’s uniform, or even just keeping his hair long. The difficulty in either complying with the norms around you, or publicly acknowledging who you are makes it difficult for MSM students to participate in their studies. Another young person, Srey Khoy, recalls, “I felt very shy when the other students are looking at me and calling me names, or when the teacher called my name to answer a question in the class because the other students laugh at me.”
That’s where M-Style fits in. We have outreach workers and M-Style clubs in several different provinces in Cambodia. Our teams are there to promote HIV and sexual health services, but they also provide a link to other MSM who are going through the same challenges. M-Style clubs provide drop-in facilities for MSM, where they can relax and find someone to talk to.
Srey Khoy continues, “but now it is different. My classmates do not laugh at me anymore. I feel very confident now that I’ve met the M-Style club manager and participated in the training of the MStyle program. Now I’ve even become a peer educator in my community. My parents accept that this is my nature so they just think that they have the twin children.”
Srey Khoy’s renewed confidence gained through his links with M-Style has enabled him to continue his studies. “Now I am at the second year at university in the faculty of business management. I have a partner and we promise to live together after I graduate, and I’m able to look for a job for our future life.”
In recognition of changes M-Style has led in Cambodia, the government recently asked FHI 360 to pioneer FASTest, a rapid HIV testing service. In the past, M-Style referred MSM to government-run clinics, but many opted not to go because of stigma and discrimination. Making FASTest available at the M-Style club now means many more are willing to access that service. And that’s what we’re about!
To learn more about working with young men who have sex with men, check out the archive of our recent e-forum “Lives at Stake: Meeting the Needs of Young People Most at Risk of HIV.”