A happy surprise for Vietnam’s LGBT community

The cycle parade on the final day of Viet Pride in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Information Connecting and Sharing (ICS).

It was a pretty positive week for gay marriage: Scotland indicated an intention to legalize same-sex marriage by 2015. The Democrats in the U.S. are backing same-sex marriage for their party platform. New Zealand will be voting on same-sex marriage, with Prime Minister John Key saying that he will vote in favor. On top of that, Asia might see its first country to legalize gay marriage… Vietnam.

Back in 2000, author Bui Anh Tan wrote the book A World Without Women, a crime novel with a strong focus on gay issues in socially-conservative Vietnam. He ended the story with the homophobic police detective learning to accept his gay brother. The People’s Police Publishing House, under the government’s Ministry of Public Security, disagreed with his ending and changed it to the gay brother moving back home and living the rest of his life as a straight man. After all, homosexuality was seen as a “social evil” akin to drug abuse. It would not do to have such a message of acceptance.

Which is why everyone was stunned when Vietnam’s Ministry of Justice announced at the end of July that the government is considering legalizing same-sex marriage. The first draft of the legislation will be submitted to the National Assembly by May 2013, and a final draft by November 2013.

How did this happen? How have things gone from “social evil” to “gay marriage” in 12 years?

“It was a nice surprise. We expected to have this in 2015,” says Le Quang Binh, director of the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), one of the organizations vocal on LGBT issues. He feels that increased visibility of the Vietnamese LGBT community and public education has led to this change in the communist one-party state.

Signs of changing attitudes have been slowly emerging for years. When Bui Anh Tan’s book was adapted into a television series in 2004, the original ending — where the homophobic main character learns to accept his gay brother for who he is — was restored. The ending was also restored in the third edition of the novel. Some same-sex couples have been more visible about celebrating their relationships, organizing ceremonies to mark civil unions even if they were not legally recognized.

In the past five years, advocates have also stepped up efforts to change mindsets and foster more discussion of LGBT issues. “We started to work with mass media in 2008 by providing training for journalists on homosexuality, same-sex marriage and LGBT rights. We also organized public events such as an exhibition on same-sex marriage, a contemporary play on same-sex relationships, talk shows on television, research and workshops on LGBT issues, etc.” Le writes in an email. These efforts have made an impact on Vietnam’s media; coverage of the LGBT community has been much more positive in recent years than in the past.

iSEE was also involved in the launch of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in Vietnam in 2011. The organization was described on LGBT web portal Fridae as the “first concerted effort ever in the country to create a supportive environment for parents and friends of LGBTs, as well as drawing the media and society’s attention to the reality of how kinship and friendship matters to happiness, potential and positivity of LGBT people’s lives” and was set up partly as a response to a survey which found that a majority of Vietnamese parents thought of homosexuality as a disease. (63.1 percent of those surveyed said that they would be very disappointed if their child was gay, while 43.7 percent said that they would make their children stay away from non-heterosexual friends.)

But despite Justice Minister Ha Hung Cuong’s announcement, nothing is set in stone. Some observers are skeptical about this out-of-the-blue announcement. Some wonder if it’s just something thrown out to take the heat off the South China Sea dispute with China. No one knows what is going to be included in the legislation that will be submitted to the National Assembly. It may even turn out that the new legislation will stop short of legalizing gay marriage, and only address the legal ramifications of civil unions. After all, the Ministry of Justice stated that:

in order to ensure individual freedoms, marriage between same-sex couples needs to be recognized. However, considering the culture and traditions of the Vietnamese family and social sensitivity of the issue, the social consequences of legal regulation are not predictable. Thus, at this point, the recognition of marriage between same-sex couple is still too early in Vietnam.

“Thanks to the decision of MOJ, the media has focused on this topic and the social debate has been stimulated,” says Le. “This is useful for social understanding and social changes in support of LGBT rights. In addition, the LGBT community is also mobilized and contributing to this social debate.”

“Same sex marriage is a very new concept in Vietnam. There is still widespread social stigma against homosexuals,” he explains. Therefore, it is now up to the advocates to capitalize on the announcement, which placed the issue in the spotlight, and push their cause even further.

iSEE and other organizations also intend to continue engaging the government on LGBT issues. The ministry has asked to consult with LGBT groups, which will be an opportunity for advocates to make some contribution towards the proposed legislation. Outreach and collaboration with other LGBT movements in the region and around the world is in the works to address the government’s anxiety over the impact of legalizing same-sex marriage on Vietnamese society.

Meanwhile, the LGBT community is mobilizing in Vietnam to raise their profile and reach out to the wider public. August 3-5 saw Vietnam’s first-ever pride festival, Viet Pride, including film screenings, exhibitions and a cycle parade through the city of Hanoi. Encouraging as many people as possible to come out and be comfortable with who they are, festival organizers hope that this will be yet another step forward in getting the conservative society to accept their LGBT friends and family.

The eyes of LGBT communities in Southeast Asia will now be on Vietnam. If the government really passes the law to legalize gay marriage, it could be a signal to other countries in the region to buck up. At the opening night of IndigNation, a month-long pride festival in Singapore, I overheard some people talking at the refreshment table: “If Vietnam legalizes, that’s goodbye to Singapore’s ‘conservative Asian values’ defense!”

If a Confucian society like Vietnam accepts gay marriage, it will be not just a victory for Vietnam, but for LGBT movements all across Asia who have been told that same-sex relationships are for more liberal (read: immoral) Western societies and have no place alongside our Asian morals and values. And if Vietnam could be the first domino in Asia when it comes to more equality for the LGBT, well, that would be absolutely fabulous.

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