A Coming-Out Party in Hanoi

We recently reported that Viet Nam’s government is now considering whether to allow same-sex couples to marry or legally register and receive rights, positioning Viet Nam to be the first country in Asia to do so. Spurred by this government proposal to consider the legal recognition of same-sex couples, residents of Hanoi hosted the city’s first LGBT pride parade on August 5, 2o12. Video footage of the parade shows a spirited, happy crowd. The following article written by Mark McDonald originally appeared in the New York Times, with Hoang Dinh Nam’s photos appearing on various websites.

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Vietnam Hosts First Gay Pride Parade (Hoang Dinh Nam, AFP Photo)

HONG KONG — It wasn’t much of a parade, as these things go. More like a noisy bike ride with some balloons. But the gathering of about 100 gay Vietnamese in Hanoi on Sunday was still a proud declaration of sorts, a kind of political coming-out in the socially conservative country.

Gay rights advocates in Vietnam have been encouraged in recent weeks by the news that the government is considering draft legislation that would allow same-sex marriages or legal unions.

Proposals are expected to be discussed at the National Assembly meeting in the spring, according to the official Vietnam News Service. If a same-sex marriage law is adopted, it would be the first in Asia.

News reports on Sunday said the bike ride was the first gay pride parade ever to be held in Vietnam. Not exactly. A large gay parade, while not overtly political, was held in the resort town of Vung Tau a decade ago.

The Associated Press reported that the bike ride wound its way 6 miles through central Hanoi. (The capital, in the north, is more socially conservative and politically doctrinaire than Ho Chi Minh City, the southern metropolis also known as Saigon. Gay life in Saigon has typically been more open and freewheeling.)

The A.P. said the demonstrators in Hanoi “trailed rainbow-colored streamers and shouted ‘Equal rights for gays and lesbians!’ and ‘We support same-sex marriage!’ ”

Cyclists decorated with balloons and rainbow flags take part in Vietnam's first ever gay pride parade on a road in Hanoi on August 5, 2012 (Hoang Dinh Nam, AFP Photo)

“Many Vietnamese still believe that gay people don’t exist in Vietnam,” said Nguyen Thanh Tam, 25, one of the parade organizers.

The opening of the Vietnamese economy to the outside world has helped accelerate the state’s recognition of a range of social issues long familiar to the West. At one point, homosexuality, while never illegal in Vietnam, was listed among the nation’s odious “social evils.”

“The global, open-market policy says a rising tide lifts all boats,” Le Quoc Bao, a social worker in Ho Chi Minh City, told me in 2002. “Well, it has lifted our boat, too. The gay boat.”

Startling increases in HIV infections and AIDS deaths over the past 15 years also has forced government and Communist Party social engineers to confront homosexuality in a serious, policy-minded way. The days of dismissing gay Vietnamese as a small subset of misguided deviants under the sway of Western social forces, well, those days are over.

People decorated with stickers and head scarves prepare to take part in Vietnam's first ever gay pride parade on a road in Hanoi (Hoang Dinh Nam, AFP Photo)

“The proposal to legalize same-sex marriage is already a big step forward,” Nguyen Minh Thuyet, a former lawmaker, told the state-run newspaper Thanh Nien. “Just a few years ago, such an idea ran into fierce opposition from lawmakers and politicians.”

Vietnam remains a conservative nation, still mindful of its core Confucian values that emphasize obedience to elders and a devotion to family. Bringing shame or causing a family to lose face is regarded as the worst sort of behavior for a son or daughter.

One young man was quoted in a recent survey of gay youth conducted by the sociologist Le Quang Binh: “My father beat me, saying: ‘I won’t accept a homo in my house. You were born a real boy, I cared for you like the rest of my children, why do you do this to me?’ ”

A transgender respondent in the survey said: “Day in and day out my parents bugged me about my gender problem. They scolded me, saying they could not accept a son like this. They said, ‘You’re something else, you’re not a human being.’ They insulted me every day. It was terrible.”

Ten years ago, I was a Hanoi-based correspondent and reported on the nascent emergence of homosexuals into the wider society. Homosexuals were then scorned, ridiculed, physically beaten, excommunicated from families. Sometimes they were even feared as being diseased.

Ly Minh Hang, a government psychologist, ran a Hanoi hotline for troubled young people at the time. She said her staff included “experts” who counseled confused youngsters about sexuality and other coming-of-age questions. She told me then:

“Most gay people have been badly affected by newspapers and other bad materials. We gradually lead them back to the right way of thinking. We remind them of their families and the traditions of Vietnam.

“We told them homosexuality is just a bad habit and it will affect their studies,” Ms. Hang said. “They will need good jobs, and if they keep on with this attitude they may end up serving in a bia om, and their life will go to hell — or worse.”

A bia om — the words translate literally to “beer hug” — is a bar where the waitresses and hostesses are usually prostitutes.

That was then, and that was Hanoi. Southern Vietnam was different. There was Tuesday-night dancing at the Sam Son Discotheque in Saigon’s District 1, a gathering that proceeded with a wink and a nod from the local police. Gay men would meet a small park near the airport, at a downtown ice-cream shop, or in private rooms at the Star Sauna.

Gay Saigonese also took group vacations to the beach towns of Phan Thiet and Vung Tau. They dressed in women’s clothes and put on skits and plays. Sometimes they held mock wedding ceremonies.

“It’s all very open,” Mr. Bao told me. “We stay in guesthouses. The owners don’t object. They love it. They want the money.’”

So, things seem to be changing, perhaps even quickly, given the same-sex marriage legislation. As Thanh Nien reported last month:

A gay couple in the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang recently exchanged wedding vows at a ceremony attended by their parents and hundreds of guests; a lesbian couple in Ca Mau Province only halted their wedding in February after authorities objected; a lesbian couple in Hanoi and a gay couple in Ho Chi Minh City too grabbed headlines after photos of their weddings and celebrations went viral online.

Increasingly in a society driven by Confucian social mores and where singers are fined for wearing skimpy clothes on stage, gay and lesbian couples are confronting social disdain and legal constraints by coming out and declaring their orientation.


A woman poses with a rainbow flag displaying the words "Viet Pride" as she prepares to take part in Vietnam's first ever gay pride parade on a road in Hanoi (Hoang Dinh Nam, AFP Photo)


Mark McDonald regularly writes the ‘View From Asia’ column for the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of The New York Times

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  1. Much ado about nothing!
    Homosexuality existed in VN way before the emergence of communism. In fact VN most renown poets of Xuân Diệu and Huy Cận high were gays, they were both high-ranking party members. (Cù) Huy Cận is the father of Cù Huy Hà Vũ, the famous legal scholar who’s been imprisoned for speaking out against the regime.
    I’m tired of the know-nothing journalists who keep repeating the cliché about VN Confucian tradition. Confucianism is practically dead, a relic of the past under communism (although China’s attempt at soft-power preeminence is trying to sell its virtue through all the newly-open Confucianist centers around the world) VN – in more ways than not – is more liberal than the U.S. What with the push for glitzy materialism, money and all-thing eccentric, morality is not the issue here in VN. Why harping about social conservatism when it does not exist? Last week a Hanoian friend, a journalist told me matter-of-factly: “Hanoi has the highest rate of divorce in all SEAsia…” I don’t know where he got his fact, but it makes me wonder about the old tradition going out of the window by way of all the political prerogative and assertiveness (read persecutions) of the government. As I contemplate whether to attend a nude body-painting event or a wedding of a friend’s friend in Hanoi this past year, his mother called out: “Look it, you don’t need to advertise you gayness by wearing that 3-hole contraption, think about face-saving a bit when you’re visiting me!” Talking to her later, I found out, she did not care too much about his being gay, she is more worry about her family face saving.

    Isn’t it about time Diacritics publishes something else instead of helping the regime distract and hide the real issues with this fluff?

    • Although I think it’s valid to be skeptical of the Vietnamese government’s motives, I don’t think that gay marriage is much ado about nothing. I think a lot of gays and lesbians who can marry or who would want to marry would think it is a very big deal, regardless of how the rhetoric of gay marriage gets used. Think about gays serving in the US military. Liberation for some, equal opportunity to serve in US imperialism for others. I don’t see the difference between US using gays and lesbians and the Vietnamese government doing the same. You’re right in saying that rhetoric is “fluff,” but if you think that gay marriage, if enacted, is fluff, then you’re wrong. As for accusing diacritics of “helping the regime,” please. Our Thursday post is already scheduled and actually about the recent self-immolation of Bà Đặng Thị Kim Liêng, but its timing has nothing to do with your post. There are plenty of places in the Vietnamese media to find criticism of the regime, and few to find discussions of art, culture, and politics that aren’t beholden to anti-Communism. That’s what we do.

    • Thai,

      Being afraid of “losing face” to family, friends, and/or community is a form of homophobia, whether or not your friend’s parent acknowledges that. The fear of one’s child “advertising” his/her gayness (at the risk of losing “face”) is also homophobic. Both of these attitudes reflect a lack of true acceptance of one’s gay son. Because if Vietnamese society is not socially “conservative” around LGBTQ issues, why would one’s son being [obviously] gay make a mother lose “face,” or honor?

      This post is not pro-Communist — it’s pro-LGBTQ-rights. They are not one and the same. Within such a narrow political lens, how would you interpret the movement for gay marriage rights throughout the rest of the world? Do you also interpret the first gay rights march in Uganda as pro-Communist? How about the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell? What about unlikely U.S. states — such as Iowa — passing gay marriage laws? Or is the focus on gay rights only considered pro-Communist when it happens in Viet Nam?

      Approaching whether this conversation is a “diversion” from the “real issues” facing Viet Nam, Dae made this useful comment on our recent post about same-sex marriage rights. His observations are relevant here, so I will re-post his words in entirety. Dae wrote:

      “I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, it could totally be a political diversion, an attempt to appear modern and get positive press. If so, it may be working. On the other hand though, I don’t like that kind of language because it characterizes the queer community’s need as irrelevant. Whether or not the government is actually trying to use LGBTQ issues as a tool or not is almost immaterial; if this issue gets too much press as a ‘political diversion,’ then that rhetoric becomes just another way of de-legitimizing the queer community.

      What I’m trying to say here is that I think the language that’s used to discuss this issue is very important. We can herald this development as a good thing and still remain skeptical of other, more oppressive developments at the same time. The one does not need to displace the other.”

      • Việt and Julie,
        You guys are actually distorting my post. I am NOT saying giving voice to LGBTQ is fluff. Nor ‘Much ado about nothing’ is about its movement, rather ‘Much ado about nothing’ has to do with Diacritics jump on the band wagon rehashing the same news for its recent consecutive posts featured them as its own mainstay stories.
        Here I’m talking about the regime that gives lip service to a movement – although not undercurrent – but never since the inception of socialism (if you’d prefer that term better then ‘communism) has it ever so much as given LBGTQ a sideway glance, then all of a sudden when the regime starts losing its grip – big time – with the populace then it began talking about legalizing gay marriages emboldening the movement. Of course isn’t the LBGTQ showdown the boldest declaration of human rights that we’ve ever witnessed in VN? Whatever the leadership’s motive, grab the opportunity while one can. In all these years of sojourning in VN witnessing all the other fluffs like soccer mania, beauty pageantry, catwalks and models, beer fest and musical concerts, glorious world-class hotels and eateries, with the rich flaunting their millions-dollars cars and homes, and glossy magazines promoting the red-capitalist possession isn’t about time LBGTQ should get their headline? After all VN is a free country when all manners of ‘dolce vita’ are encouraged and allowed while other expressions get prison term. Ironically, LBGTQ is the greatest democratic demonstration of one’s minority right, albeit it is just one of those freedoms that was given free reign ahead of all other political rights!
        On the other hand, don’t be so jumpy about anti-or pro communist stuffs, ̣there’s not such thing as a commie anymore! We Vietnamese has a saying: “Có tật giật mình” meaning when one’s feeling guilty, he/she becomes jumpy. You guys should work out your own unresolved conflict with ‘imperialist America’ before talking about VN. I probably agree more than you know Viet, that America has really fucked us up with all these imperialist- capitalist hegemony, creating these Red-capitalist monsters gobbling up all these FDI money, while the poors are hustling for a lottery ticket, the rich are hustling for millions dollars venture deals.

        • There’s a lot to respond to here, but I’m going to focus on a few things. I was very uncomfortable with the company you but LGBTQ rights in: soccer mania, beauty pageants, catwalks and models, beer fests….which you called “all the other fluffs” and examples of “dolce vita.” Being LGBTQ is not a hedonistic, fluffy expression of living la dolche vida. It is an integral part of one’s being.

          Beauty pageants are not what LGBTQ issues should be compared to. LGBTQ issues belong in the company of other great social issues: ethnic minority rights, human rights blogging and the targeting out the Club for Free Journalists, and religious persecution.

          The government may believe they are “using” LGBTQ rights to get props from the international community. But that might give the other groups I listed above a little leverage. After all, once the government starts recognizing more rights, activists could hopefully use that as precedent to helping other groups.

          With regards to your point about taking care of America before talking about VN…if only it were that simple. Unfortunately, shining light on the various abuses in VN might be the only way – coupled with pressure from within – to create positive change.

          • Dear Dae,
            Does it matter where you or I would want to place LGBTQ on the regime’s continuum? It does not. Trust me, nothing is happenstance when it’ comes to a Vietnamese government proposition, a bill or an injunction. Whether it’s soccer mania, beauty pageant or any other fluffs, all serve their intended purposes. Diversions or pressure release escape valve. Have you ever seen a protest against gov’t land grab or China expansion go without incidents? No. Did we see the LGBTQ parade goes unchecked? Yes. Why?
            No one compares the issues of gay marriage to soccer mania, but to the Hanoi gov’t they both serve as distractions. If one happens to visit VN during a soccer championship and get caught in traffic for hours, passively witnessing the teeming mass yearning to break free, flag waving, dancing atop of their bikes and in the streets and no police actions anywhere, should one ask why? To me, when Bay area Radio station KSOL-FM had to pay $500,000 in tolls for a May 26, 1993, publicity stunt, mocking the then president Clinton for a $200 haircut on Air Force 1, tying traffic for hours, that must have said something about VN freedom (carefree attitude). Perhaps, likewise you believe that and recognizing gay rights might give the other groups (you) listed above a little leverage. Dream on. For nearly a century since coming to power, when does the Hanoi gov’t back down on freedom or freedom of expression? During the period of Humanities and Literary Movement (Nhân văn Giai Phẩm)?
            Today money and glitzy materialism and outward possession is everything that is what sĩ diện (saving face is about, btw Julie, in the olden days ‘sĩ diện’ is viewed as one’s honor and integrity) today ‘sĩ diện’ is alll about how one perceives of himself/herself (in the eyes of others) it has little to do with homophobia, but a lot to do with wealth and appearance. All thanks to the egalitarian society of the mackeno, the have and have not.

        • Thai-Anh,
          I don’t think I misconstrued you or became “jumpy” or “guilty” when you wrote “Isn’t it about time Diacritics publishes something else instead of helping the regime distract and hide the real issues.” That is a statement that implies an either/or world, that is, if we’re not criticizing the regime we’re helping it. That’s a straightforward declaration on your part, and I’m not reading anything into it.By your measure, we’re helping a lot of oppressive forces whenever we don’t talk about them. As for the government manipulating LGBTQ, that again may be an underlying motive, but it’s more for international consumption than domestic consumption. Because if the people are really upset about things like property, corruption, and religious and political freedom, are they really going to be mollified by freedoms for LGBTQ people? So it seems like that is a pretty dumb or desperate way of manipulating the people. Still, as Dae says, freedom is unpredictable. You open the door a little, and people may want a lot more.

          • Thai-Anh,

            How you described your story, originally and in your most recent post, does not reveal why your friend’s mother objected to his making her ‘lose face.’ Your only real descriptor of your friend was/is that he is gay. You did not clarify that he is poor or unkempt or __(insert negative attribute here)___. So this anecdote you’ve given remains very ambiguous as proof that everyone in Viet Nam is “over” the whole LGBTQ thing.

            It’s also short-sighted to imagine that one cannot critically examine more than one nation-state at a time, or more than one entity. When you write “You guys should work out your own unresolved conflict with ‘imperialist America’ before talking about VN,” your words reflect black-and-white thinking — that only one thing/entity at a time can be held as an object of critical inquiry. You’re basically demanding “either you talk about the U.S. or you cannot talk about Viet Nam.” This demand forces an either/or (approach similar to the one described above by Viet) which doesn’t reflect the mission of diaCRITICS. It appears that you’re asking diaCRITICS to adhere to a narrow political agenda, or not speak/publish at all.

            If you’re going to critique a government for repressive measures that cause a lack of freedom of speech, you should not similarly attempt to silence critical thought and expression, whether you ‘agree’ with the speaker or not.


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