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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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!’ ”
“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.
“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.
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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