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Monday, November 22, 2004

Compassion in Cambodia

 

Compassion in Cambodia

By Cyril Chin-Kidess, Pacific News Service. Posted November 19, 2004.


While many U.S. counties passed anti-gay measures in the last election, the retired king of Cambodia declares that as a "liberal democracy," Cambodia should allow "marriage between man and man ... or between woman and woman." He follows it up by making at least one foreign couple feel at home. Story Tools
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More stories by Cyril Chin-Kidess

Anyone disheartened by the way many U.S. leaders cast gay marriage as a "threat" to moral values should remember that there is a world beyond the reach of America's courts and legislatures, where gays and lesbians and their unions are acknowledged and accepted, often without great fanfare. Take my story, for instance.

Although I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I've lived abroad for the last 10 years and have been with my partner, Theo, for eight years. Theo is a German diplomat, so we move around a lot. At the beginning of this year, Theo was offered a posting to Phnom Penh. He accepted on the condition that the German foreign ministry find a way for me to accompany him.

While Germany legally recognizes same-sex unions and the German foreign ministry supports our partnership, the Cambodian government does not, nor would it grant me the same long-stay diplomatic visa typically issued to a diplomat's spouse. I could, of course, have tried to find a job in Cambodia and apply for a work permit. But if I wanted to live in Cambodia solely on the grounds of my relationship with Theo, I would have to go in and out of the country on a monthly tourist visa, become a student or go under the guise of Theo's domestic help – a common scenario for gay diplomats and their partners worldwide, including those posted to the United States.

I was fortunate enough to find an alternate way.

The recently retired King of Cambodia, His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk, has led a fascinating life. From his coronation in 1941, to achieving independence from France in 1953, to recently ensuring the continuation of the monarchy with the election of his son, Prince Norodom Sihamoni, as his successor, King Sihanouk has been pivotal in the history of modern Cambodia. In between ruling, abdicating, being prime minister and head of state (as well as a musician, a film director and an actor), living in exile, being imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge and becoming king again in 1993, King Sihanouk always demonstrated a resilient compassion for his country and people.

King Sihanouk also takes a keen interest in world events. One such event was San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to have San Francisco issue marriage licenses on a non-discriminatory basis. On Feb. 20, after seeing televised images of some of the gay weddings in San Francisco, King Sihanouk commented on his Web site, www.norodomsihanouk.info, that as a "liberal democracy" Cambodia should allow "marriage between man and man ... or between woman and woman." On Feb. 26, King Sihanouk followed up with a letter in which he disagreed that God absolutely opposes "gays"; rather, he wrote, "God, like Buddha, is compassion, indulgence, non-discrimination."

In March, unable to resist the opportunity presented by King Sihanouk's comments, I wrote to him for help. Remarkably, King Sihanouk personally replied a few days later, "You are welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia." With that, Theo and I moved to Cambodia at the end of July, and a month later I received a three-year Cambodian visa in my German diplomatic passport.

Having lived and travelled in many countries where gay marriages or unions are officially recognized and where most people simply don't care whether you are gay or straight, I find it hard to believe that everyday Americans are any different at heart. As far as I am concerned, Mayor Newsom and King Sihanouk put the issue simply and got it right. Theo and I are indebted to them, and we hope that others will find the compassion and courage to follow their example.

Unfortunately, gay marriage has become a highly charged rallying cry for those desiring to push forward a much broader and divisive political agenda for the country. Perhaps the way forward is to stop focusing on the emotive word "marriage" and press ahead for meaningful civil unions. Then leave it to the American people, if for no other reason than simply out of convenience, to start using the words "married" and "marriage" in everyday discourse. Technically, Theo and I entered into a "Lebenspartnerschaft," or life partnership, under German law, but everyone we know just says that we're married – or worse, that we're an old married couple. Meanwhile, as Germans see that their cities have not turned into stone and become more at ease with "gay marriage," the legal differences between civil unions and marriage are slowly being chipped away.

Cyril Chin-Kidess is an Asian American lawyer from the San Francisco Bay Area. He is currently doing pro bono work in Cambodia for the Secretariat of the Royal Government Task Force in charge of setting up the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal.

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