This is a story about a gay Australian expat named Jason. Born and raised 3.200 miles away from Cambodia, Jason had never thought of settling down in The Kingdom of Wonder. Living in a community-based yet quite-conservative town in Australia, he never felt depressed, discriminated or excluded by his community, but it was a different story when it came to his sexuality. Parties were always going on; people were social and his school was only a few minutes walk away from home. However, in his family, it seemed a bit strained and unwelcoming. His father is a serious person, but his mother is a caring and lovable person- she is the first person he opened up to about his sexuality and the one who stayed by his side unconditionally.
In his teenage years, Jason experienced hardships of “coming out” to his community and family. At one point, in a desperate effort to hide his sexuality, he dated girls that he never had a thought of liking intimately. He said “I tried to date women (…), but I was not attracted to them. I was more scared of them. I worried that if anything happened between us that maybe I wouldn’t be able (to like them) and they would know I was gay and then the whole school would know”. From this experience, he struggled and realized that it would not be easy for people when it comes to exploring their sexuality or simply just living their life freely to be their real self.
At the age of 18, Jason started to venture out in the gay world in Australia. In his journey, he witnessed many obstacles and injustices that the LGBT+ community faces. A gay couple cannot walk down the street without feeling fearful and anxious of being targeted. People are less motivated to change their preconceived notions of LGBT+ people. Thus, he has the idea of making sure everything that he does helps people. For him, helping one another is the key to see the change that we want to see in this world.
Cambodia is where he witnessed love being embraced and purely projected to one another. On his way to Italy, Jason transited in Cambodia, but surprisingly, he adored this country the moment he touched down, and lived in Cambodia thereafter. He did volunteer jobs to help people in rural areas and started to learn Khmer. He loves Cambodian people and immensely admires their culture. “I used to work with an NGO where we went to rural communities to help them build their houses and toilets. They helped each other and even a granny came along to join helping us. I was amazed with the connection they have towards each other” he expressed. Despite being tired of working, he ruminates- this is what he needs, the pure love and the strong bond of humankind.
With this admiration of Cambodia’s culture, Jason founded an organization named A Place To Be Yourself. A place and a sanctuary where LGBT+ individuals can find shelter, love and knowledge. He said “I founded this place to create a place where my community can come to learn and freely express themselves”. He faced loads of ups and downs during the establishment of this sanctuary- from the financial and technical support to the challenges of mobilizing the LGBT+ community. However, going through all the difficulties, he has one golden moment that really touches his heart. In the beginning of A Place To Be Yourself, he taught and shared LGBT+ related insights to every visitor and member. In one afternoon, a young boy came to this place asking about LGBT+ related matters, which he explained to him carefully. After the session ended, a young boy walked out the door and saw a trans-woman passing by and the young boy greeted this beautiful trans-woman with the correct pronouns and the young boy looked to Jason and smiled at him. Jason was very touched and emotional, and said “this is such a great achievement I have ever made.”
Beyond the vision of A Place To Be Yourself, he wanted this place to be a stepping stone to create more safe spaces for the LGBT+ community in the wider society. “I wanted LGBT individuals to not only feel safe in this place, but in everywhere”. To achieve this change, he believes that this has to come with the right education and within the LGBT+ community itself and of course with cooperation and support from different parts of the society. Besides, fighting for LGBT+ rights, he is planning to focus on mental health issues as well. As he always dreamt back in high school that all he wanted to do is to HELP people and Cambodia helps him to achieve it.
Good luck, Jason.
This article is written by Ricardo Araujo, a 1st generation participant of Story Corner 2020 which aims to break the stigma on LGBT+ through storytelling and the engagement of youths through dialogue and series of training on gay rights advocacy and basic journalism. Story Corner 2020 is hosted by Buzz Talk Cambodia.