Pride and Promise for Vietnam’s LGBTQI+ Community

By: John Mark Harrell

Vietnam is moderately accepting on the international stage.

Queer media representation is increasingly positive in Vietnam.

Thời gian thấm thoát thoi đưa
Thể nào anh cũng sẽ lừa được em
Chàng trai đang sánh bước bên em
Đằng nào rồi cũng sẽ thuộc về anh!”

A chorus of young voices sang this year’s unofficial Vietnam Pride anthem from singer and gay pop culture icon Truc Nhan as they charged up and down Saigon’s iconic Nguyen Hue walking street. Hoisting a giant rainbow flag over their heads, participants broke out into dance, took selfies with drag queens, and some even brought family members to an LGBTQI+ event for the first time. Local papers were there snapping photos, and even some international news outlets in far off countries covered the events of September 14th, 2019. It was only the eighth year in Vietnam’s history that Pride was publicly celebrated. 

Vietnam’s LGBTQI+ CommunitySaigon Pride Parade on Nguyen Hue walking street - by cvdvn.files.wordpress.com

What made this day’s gathering truly special, however, was its significance as a platform for the Saigonese LGBTQI+ community to visibly occupy public space - in plain view of their friends and families, their fellow Vietnamese citizens, tourists and expats, and even the police. 

“A western style drag scene has started and grown in Hanoi and Saigon,” says Blake, a Hanoi-based expat and performer. “Pride itself seems to be getting bigger.”

Here in Vietnam, the LGBTQI+ community has only recently begun to occupy a public platform, with the first ever Pride held in Hanoi on August 5, 2012. In a short span of time, Pride celebrations have spread to cities and rural towns all throughout Vietnam, and new ones - like this year’s first ever Pride in Tra Vinh, a sparsely-populated coastal province in the heart of the Mekong Delta - are popping up every year.

Vietnam on the International Stage

The landscape of sexual orientation and gender identity in Vietnam, and more broadly throughout Asia, is a complex terrain from which cultural values, family intradependence, religion, and the tumultuous legacy of colonialism grow and intertwine. As a result, LGBTQ rights vary widely in this part of the world. 

Taiwan is a model of acceptance among its fellow Asian nations, recently becoming the first to legalize same-sex marriage. Its annual Pride celebration in October drew about 200,000 local and international participants, making it the largest in the region.

Vietnam’s LGBTQI+ CommunityHanoi Pride Parade - by facebook.com/hanoipride.vn

Malaysia and Brunei have enshrined and upheld some of the world’s harshest punishments for same-sex sexual activity into law, ranging from jail time to caning and, in the most extreme cases, vigilante execution. Though these punishments are rarely enforced, LGBTQI+ individuals receive virtually no protection from the state and are frequent targets of hate crimes and discriminatory police raids.

Among its neighbouring nations, Vietnam sits relatively comfortably on the tolerant end of the spectrum, though perhaps not yet fully accepting. 

“The biggest challenge that we’re facing now,” says Long, a transgender dancer and drag performer based in Saigon, “Is the legal matters of same-sex marriage and the transgender community’s rights to legally adopt their new gender.”

Vietnam’s LGBTQI+ CommunityHanoi Pride Parade - by facebook.com/hanoipride.vn

Homosexuality has never been criminalized in Vietnam, and as recently as 2015, the National Assembly passed a bill that would make it legal for transgender individuals to change their gender on legal documents to reflect their true gender identity; however, guidance for enacting this law has yet to be discussed or passed by the National Assembly, leaving the fate of thousands of transgender individuals in Vietnam to the discernment of local authorities, who are unable or unaware of how to proceed without a clear mandate to do so. 

But perhaps the greatest source of controversy over this bill within the transgender community is that only those who have had gender reassignment surgery qualify for legal recognition.

“Because that law will be defined by surgery and not by someone identifying as transgender, it really should be called the ‘transsexual’ law,” says Linh, director of ICS Center, a nationwide legal advocacy group. “So now the current draft, and older drafts, have been debated even in the trans community...because being legally recognised requires you to have some kind of medical transition, and not every trans person wants to do that.”

Vietnam’s LGBTQI+ CommunityJS Band at GenderFunk Pride Ball - by facebook.com/GenderFunk

Rectifying this aspect of the law may take some time. The National Assembly, having agreed in principle that this law should be made in 2015, have since given a mandate to the Ministry of Health to work out the specifics of that law, as well as how it should be implemented.

“Though the transgender law is still debated within the transgender community, the main reason that hasn’t been passed is because there have been a lot of new laws proposed in the last two years,” says Linh. “At present, the transgender law is not the Health Ministry's priority. The draft bill has been proposed eight times from 2017 until now but it still hasn’t been prioritised, most likely because this law only affects a small minority of the population.”

Despite this challenge, there is a palpable sense of hope and anticipation within the local community that major progress could be made in the next few years. “I don’t think we’ll never be prioritised just because we're a minority,” says Linh. “It just means we need stronger visibility, to raise our voices and express our needs.”

“I'm positive that Vietnam will be the next in Asia to legalise equal marriage.” 

… says Dan Ni, a Saigonese drag performer whose optimism is shared by many in the Vietnamese LGBTQI+ community.

As public perception warms up to the LGBTQI+ community, mostly through increased representation in the media and pop culture, many Vietnamese citizens maintain a bright outlook for the advancement of gay rights in the next decade.

“We hope to achieve same sex marriage, hopefully in the next 6 years,” says Linh. “I hope that the transgender law will be resolved sooner, since it’s achieved more progress than the same-sex marriage law.”

Media Representation

Public exposure to queer individuals in pop culture, politics, and the media has certainly increased in the last decade. Vietnamese movies frequently depict protagonist, usually gay male or transgender female characters, though their roles have often been relegated to well-known and tired stereotypes. 

Vietnam’s LGBTQI+ CommunityDrag queen, Sweet Potato, at Saigon Pride Parade on Nguyen Hue walking street - by facebook.com/GenderFunk

“Securing acceptance and respect is important,” says Ana, a British expat and performer based in Saigon. “As opposed to the current portrayal [of gay men] in the media as just jokers or flamboyant comedy characters.”

“In the past 2-3 years, there has been a lot of LGBTQ representation,” says Linh. “Talk shows and reality shows create a lot of positive influence, although most of them are not perfect, and there are still stereotypes and bias. But it does bring different stories to the general public. That is something we appreciate about the media. And we will need all this visibility and much more in order to pass the transgender law in Vietnam.”

Though stigma and harmful stereotypes certainly remain in pop culture, LGBTQI+ representation seems to be steadily increasing and improving. In the Spring of 2019, popular TV game show Người Ấy Là Ai featured a young gay male contestant who shared his story on national television. His parents later joined him onstage and talked about how they had come to love, accept, and celebrate their son for who he is. Former Vietnam Idol singer and transgender pop icon, Huong Giang, is also a regular judge on this show, which has subsequently featured a handful of other LGBTQI+ contestants.

Vietnam’s LGBTQI+ CommunityLove is love - by znews.vn

One of 2018’s biggest viral moments in Vietnamese television that made international waves came in the form of a shocking reveal on Vietnam’s first ever season of The Bachelor, in which one of the female contestants, Minh Thu, broke decorum and declared her love for one of her fellow female contestants, Truc Nhu, and asked her to quit the show in front of a national audience. Later footage would reveal the producers’ shock as the contestants embraced and left the set together, though Nhu would agree to stay on the show until her eventual elimination. After the season aired, the two announced that they had gotten together after the show, and have been the subject of national admiration ever since.

Vietnam’s LGBTQI+ CommunityStill from Truc Nhan’s MV Sáng Mắt Chưa - by yeah1music.net

Just a few weeks after international Pride month this year, Vietnamese singer and pop culture icon Truc Nhan released his latest hit music video, Sáng Mắt Chưa—a wacky, colourful, unapologetically flamboyant rollercoaster ride in which he is depicted “crashing” his friend’s wedding to let her know that her fiance is secretly his gay lover. 

While the tabloid-esque frivolity of illicit sexual affairs may seem like a rather shallow and tacky Pride anthem to the casual Western observer, this hilarious jab at “closeted” gay culture in Vietnam struck a chord with the local LGBTQI+ community for depicting an all-too-relatable scenario, in which many deny their own sexuality to fulfill their parents’ expectations to have a heterosexual marriage and start a family. Indeed, the tremendous pressure gay men face to take up the mantle of their family name and have children of their own is at the root of a lot of the violence, rejection, and discrimination they experience, sometimes in the form of violence from their own families.

Out in Public, Closeted at Home

Many people, particularly in urban areas, lead fairly open lives with their friends, finding local queer spaces when they are available, and of course dating and often getting into serious relationships—but they simply don’t talk about their public lives at home for fear of disappointing their parents, maintaining a precarious separation of the two worlds. It is common, therefore, for LGBTQI+ individuals in Vietnam to be publicly “out” but still “closeted” in their own homes.

This cultural phenomenon is widespread in Asian countries, where three or more generations often occupy a single household, and where adult children often stay with their families well beyond the age of 18. In Vietnam, this is partly due to cultural values rooted in traditional Confucianism, and partly due to socioeconomic necessity, with families functioning as a vital support system.

The legacy of Confucianism, imported by Chinese colonial rule centuries ago, still lies at the foundation of family values in Vietnam and, like many other patriarchal systems around the world, governs familial relationships, and assigns specific roles to women and men. Though Vietnamese women today enjoy a greater measure of independence and equality than in the more conservative, fundamentalist past, they are still typically expected to leave their childhood homes to join their husbands’ families after marriage. 

Traditional Confucianism says little about sexuality, but the structural mandates built on gender and generational hierarchy have historically left no room for homosexual relationships, and in extreme cases, have made homosexuality a de facto threat to the fabric of society and the status quo.

Vietnam’s LGBTQI+ CommunityĐạo Mẫu, or “Mother Goddess” worship - by thanhnien.vn

A notable exception exists in the centuries-old tradition of Đạo Mẫu, or “Mother Goddess” worship, originating in the north of Vietnam in the 16th century as a rebellion against Chinese colonial Confucian gender roles. Instead of relegating women to submissive, passive roles, Đạo Mẫu incorporates numerous female and male deities, and places female deity Lieu Hanh at the center—a symbol of women’s desire for freedom, happiness, and independence. Even more transgressive were the mediums specially chosen to commune with the goddess, who wore the clothing matching the gender of the male or female deity they wanted to commune with, regardless of their own gender. This is, perhaps, the first recorded instance of the performance of gender fluidity in Vietnamese culture. Đạo Mẫu received UNESCO’s inscription in 2016, and has had a cultural resurgence at the Four Palaces in Hanoi, where visitors can witness the colourful and centuries-old ritual practices of the religion in a dramatised way.

Looking Ahead

“There is no secret group of smart, benevolent activists who are going to secure rights and acceptance for you,” says Blake. “If you want things to change, you must be part of the effort. How big your contribution is and exactly what that contribution is, is up to you, but you should not be a bystander.”

Vietnam stands at the precipice of an exciting time for the LGBTQI+ community. Awareness and acceptance is spreading, laws are gradually making their way into the books to secure equality and protection for some of Vietnam’s most vulnerable communities, and the general outlook for the community in Vietnam is positive.

Vietnamese children and teenagers now have access to role models and resources that were almost completely out of reach only a decade ago. Media representation is increasingly affirming and positive. International influence imports a diversity of worldviews and cultures to a country that, up until the early nineties, was virtually cut off from the outside world.

Vietnam’s LGBTQI and CommunityHanoi Pride Parade - by facebook.com/hanoipride.vn

Still, there are plenty of challenges that remain. The LGBTQI+ community continues to be ostracised and isolated, particularly in rural communities, and disproportionately affecting trans people. “Coming out” is a hot topic and widely seen as something that is still impactful and consequential for many families. Particularly with the older generation, outdated stereotypes and misinformation through lack of exposure and education persist.

Thanks to the efforts of local initiatives and organisations like ICS, this is gradually changing, and leaders in queer communities throughout Vietnam are becoming more and more outspoken to challenge conventional assumptions and offer support to people who are vulnerable or afraid to be their true selves. 

“Don't be shy, be confident, do everything you can to be confident,” says Phong, a Hanoi based drag performer. “You're beautiful and have the right to exist. When you accept who you are and show your talents, don't be afraid of what other people think of you.”

“No matter what gender you have, you have the right to choose to do the right thing or the wrong thing,” says Lolita. “So, choose the right path to discover yourself and do not rush to conclude anything when you do not really understand it.”

“Be you,” says Dan Ni. “Because as Lizzo said, it feels good as hell.”

Vietnam’s LGBTQI and CommunityGuests at Genderfunk - by facebook.com/GenderFunk

Banner Image source: facebook.com/hanoipride.vn

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