The fact that there was visibly little budget for the production really didn’t seem to have bothered anyone when the My Best Gay Friends series started on YouTube in 2013. The series reaches millions of views within a very short time. Even though homosexuality and being Gay in Vietnam was still described as a social evil by a national television broadcaster in 2002, comparable to prostitution and illegal gambling. To understand how the situation for the LGBT community in Vietnam has improved, take a look at the neighboring countries in South East Asia.
In Southeast Asia, homosexuality is still often illegal and is understood as an illness or punishment for sins in a previous life. But the LGBT activists in Vietnam have found their own way to improve the situation for the community. Couple of Men reporter Sarah traveled around the Asian country alone as a woman and could get an idea about the local LGBTQ+ community in Vietnam. After Georgia, Lebanon, Myanmar, and Russia, she is now analyzing the country of gay and LGBTQ + in Vietnam for Couple of Men.
Written by Sarah Tekath
Translated by Karl Krause
Gay in Vietnam: The legal situation for LGBTQ+
Compared to other countries in Southeast Asia, the legal situation of LGBTQ+ in Vietnam is much more relaxed, first, because homosexuality is not punishable by law and, even though same-sex marriage is not permitted, partnerships are possible. However, this has only been the case since 2013. Before that, it was common for the police to appear at wedding and anniversary celebrations to impose fines, says Hoang Giang Son, Gender Justice Program Coordinator at ISEE, an NGO founded in 2007 in Hanoi, which calls campaigns for the rights of women, LGBT, and ethnic minorities.
The activist has been working for the LGBT community in Vietnam for 3.5 years, even if he has faced little discrimination in his own past. “But it is clear to me that just because I was lucky that doesn’t have to be the case with everyone. So, I think it’s important to stand up for the good cause and to strengthen the community. After all, there is still a lot of lack of understanding and discrimination in the country – for example, of families or teachers.”
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In the same year 2013, the “I do” campaign, abbreviated to ‘I do agree with same-sex marriage’, of the NGO ICS ran in Ho Chi Minh City run nationwide. Ngo Le Phuong Linh is head of the organization and speaks of a huge success. “We could attract well-known personalities and influencers as well as people with whom many can identify, such as street vendors, to our cause.” As a result of the action, the local government has lifted the legal ban on same-sex relationships. However, there was no official recognition.
There are also no anti-discrimination laws. Weddings etc. are now permitted (without a legal foundation), but adoption, for example, is still not possible. “Even if it is not yet ideal, 2013 was a huge step,” says Hoang Giang Son. “The next step is now the official legalization of same-sex marriages.” ICS is already working on a campaign for this, says Ngo Le Phuong Linh.
Collect facts to further improve the situation
Two long-term ISEE surveys are currently underway to assess the current situation of members of the LGBTQ+ community in Vietnam. This is to demonstrate how many same-sex couples really want to officially marry and how big the need really is. Such facts are necessary to make the government aware of the need for changes. “Nothing happens here without verifiable facts and figures,” says Hoang Giang Son. Public opinion and social acceptance are also part of these surveys. Based on this, further large-scale campaigns are to be created in 2022/23.
But the religious foundation of Vietnam with a Buddhist majority also promotes the work of the activists. “Buddhism is about tolerance,” explains Hoang Giang Son. “Even if someone is different, it’s about understanding and accepting that person.”
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Gaining the support of the population through sympathy
Hoang Giang Son says ISEE has also done important work to improve the situation for the LGBT community in Vietnam in terms of the media. Training and workshops were held with journalists in 2011/12 to achieve an understanding of negative headlines and tendencies of news being able to put people at risk. Because in the past, when social media was at the beginning, the media had created a negative image of homosexuals and the LGBTQ+ community.
So instead of connecting the LGBT community with negative news, such as unintentionally through campaigns by other NGOs in the early 2000s on HIV prevention, the focus would now be on understanding the daily problems, concerns, and discrimination of the LGBTQ+ community. “We are all citizens of this country. Why should we be treated like this and why should something as beautiful as love have to lead to something as bad as suicide?” The Vietnamese population is particularly accessible to such statements and reacts with sympathy, compassion, and empathy, explains Hoang Giang Son. For example, many identify with the story of a mother who first had a problem with her son’s Coming Out but now has to see how he is discriminated against and fear that he may commit suicide.
There are now many LGBT films, series, music videos, and documentaries available, such as the award-winning work ‘Madam Phung’s Last Journey’ (2014) about a transgender band by Tham Nguyen Thi.
Furthermore, the support within the community itself, but also from outside, is increasingly shown on social media by reporting anti-gay comments or contributions and often getting a huge response with a collective shit storm.
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Smart resistance: the first Hanoi Pride on bicycles
A great example of Vietnam’s LGBTQ+ community can also be seen in their creative approach to campaign for their rights during Hanoi Pride. The event took place for the first time in 2012 with around 100 participants – on bicycles, as demonstrations and protests on foot require a permit. “We keep testing the limits of what is possible. And so, we go a little further each time, ”says Hoang Giang Son. For example, numerous events of the LGBT community have already been held on the grounds of the American Club in Hanoi, as they are the property of the USA and Vietnamese police officers have no authority there.
In 2017, therefore, pride took place on foot for the first time, with a few previous test runs in the pedestrian zone to assess the police response. The first time it was shown that waving rainbow flags led to a rejection of state power, so the activists wore the rainbow flags as costumes on their bodies the following week. When the local police wanted to stop the exercise march, even uninvolved passers-by intervened and loudly asked the officers to let the group move on. This run was later shown in all media says Hoang Giang Son.
In 2018, the number of participants was more than 1,000, with the British embassy also being able to be convinced as a partner of the campaign. With every year, Hanoi Pride also receives more financial support from the private sector, often because members of the LGBT community work in influential positions in companies, says Hoang Giang Son.
The main thing, however, is not to present the Pride as a political event. “As long as we don’t get the impression that we are a threat to the ruling party, we are allowed to do it,” explains the activist. A confrontation would only be disadvantageous because open speech and criticism of the political system in the socialistic country of Vietnam are still extremely risky. Instead, the path of clever resistance applies here.
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High risk for transgender people
Despite a visible improvement in the situation for LGBTQ + in Vietnam in the past 10 years, the circumstances for trans people are still difficult. Because gender reassignment has been permitted by law since 2015, official medical guidelines are still not available five years later, so doctors only perform breast surgeries that are considered cosmetic surgeries, but no genital surgery. Trans people would therefore often opt for interventions in Thailand, in questionable clinics, since the financial budget for trustworthy doctors is often not available, knows Tan Thu Nguyen. He is a doctor and important contact person of the LGBTQ+ community in Ho Chi Minh City, who already offered free online counseling on HIV and AIDS in 2010 to avoid the worry of many patients of public exposure.
If problems such as infections or bleeding should arise after an operation, Vietnamese doctors would offer little help. There is also little support for treatment with hormones. “Instead, many trans people buy hormones on the black market and take the preparations without medical supervision,” he says. At least he can give advice since he is not allowed to issue prescriptions to his patients. “But that’s just the price that trans people are willing to pay to finally be themselves.”
Gay in Vietnam: Legally, much is still a gray area
Since 2018, ICS has also been offering training courses to train doctors on the special needs of trans people. In addition, Tan Thu Nguyen regularly publishes magazine articles and blog posts to create a greater awareness of their situation and problems and a sound understanding of operations and hormones. “It is legally still a gray area,” says Ngo Le Phuong Linh, “because a transgender can adjust the gender with an operation – but that doesn’t change it in their passport.”
Nevertheless, awareness of the existence of trans people is growing in Vietnamese society. For example, a transgender pride took place in Ho Chi Minh City last November 2019. So, Vietnam isn’t quite the paradise that the local LGBT community would want, but the way seems to be the right one.
LGBTQ+ & Gay travelers in Vietnam
The situation is also relatively relaxed for LGBT travelers who can visit Vietnam, compared to some surrounding countries in Southeast Asia. For example, there is the gay agency Pride Drives – Saigon Gay Tours in Ho Chi Minh City, which offers city tours with TukTuks and street food tours. Karl and Daan were traveling in Vietnam as well a couple of years back and were able to explore both the north and the southern part of the country, including Phu Quoc as an openly gay couple. They did not experience problems and homophobia. However, the special position of tourists abroad should not be neglected.
Gay Travel Planning: Wikipedia LGBT rights in Vietnam
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Photo Source: ICS Ho Chi Minh City | Couple of Men
Information Source: Pride Drives | ICS Ho Chi Minh City | Wikipedia