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The rising rainbow in Vietnam

Communist Vietnam has changed its attitudes to the LGBTI (lesbian gay bisexual transgender intersex) community in recent years, from condemning it to allowing gay weddings, pride parades and transgender people to change their gender on identity cards.

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" [Vietnam] in many ways leads the region now on LGBT issues, something few may have seen coming even half a decade ago."
Helen Clark, Freelance journalist

The nation in many ways leads the region now on LGBTI issues, something few saw coming even half a decade ago. 

Vietnam allowed gay marriage ceremonies in January 2015 and now allows transgender people to officially change genders, useful in a country where an ID card must be carried at all times. Legal same-sex marriage is not yet allowed, however.

Communist and Confucian Vietnam could be a good ally for the US push for gay rights internationally. When US President Barack Obama visits the country this year there's a good chance there will be a dialogue on gay rights and possibly an agreement on collaboration, much as how 12 agreements were signed during Xi Jinping's Hanoi visit. The US has already thrown support behind LGBTI activists and Ambassador Ted Osius is gay.

The change in Vietnam is being led by a group of savvy and educated young activists more interested in trying to involve the government than challenge or protest against it, helpful when setting up public marches (something the government remains wary of, save when it needs to send a message to Beijing over South China Sea sovereignty issues). Since 2012 they have progressed fast.

Vietnam, with a large Buddhist population, does not have the religious issues of the US, Muslim Indonesia or the Catholic Philippines. A careful reading of much of the official rhetoric suggests LGBTI rights is an area the government would like to see better legislated and under a form of friendly (but tighter) state control.

CHANGING ATTITUDES

Unlike Thailand or Indonesia, Vietnam does not have a strong tradition of a 'third sex'. Effeminate spirit mediums have served in ritual in both the more conservative north and in the south as they were traditionally seen as a bridge between this world and another but it has never been a major tenet of Vietnam's Confucian-influenced Buddhism or ancestor worship.

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Photographer: Maika Elan/VII

The government long saw such things, and homosexuality more generally, as a 'social evil', something decadent to be stamped out to preserve both traditional culture and Vietnamese communism from pernicious Western influence.

That influence is now being welcomed or at least tolerated.  However, suggesting Vietnam is allowing greater gay rights to placate a West it may need in times of Chinese aggression is poorly informed, though it has likely occurred to Vietnam's policymakers that gay rights help improve a human-rights record without costing much politically. It couldn't have hurt during TPP negotiations either, according to some watchers.

This may also come down to modernity. Vietnam cherishes its tradition and heritage but it has always been equally afraid of falling behind or seeming backward or tut hau.

Since at least 2011, the gay rights discussion in newspapers has sometimes involved the idea science has proven homosexuality natural and therefore going 'against' it is backwards. It is better for Vietnam to recognise the future than be tied to superstition and the past goes this line of argument.

This 2011 article canvassing mainly learned opinion makes a few interesting points: Vietnam is Buddhist so there is less religious pressure against gay marriage than the United States and, according to Dr Le Bach Duong.

"Homosexual people are not subjects who disturb or harm our society," Duong said. "Once same-sex marriage becomes legal it will help homosexual people to live in more responsible and stable manner."

The importance of state involvement has come up more than once and has been mentioned by Vietnamese justice minister Ha Hung Cuong who said in 2012 that prejudice against gay people was "unacceptable".

"I think as far as human rights are concerned it's time for us to look at the reality," he said more recently on television. "The number of homosexuals has mounted to hundreds of thousands. It's not a small figure. They live together without registering marriage and it creates legal consequences."

In other words, let them deal with the red tape, too. Still, it is technically illegal for couples of any sexuality to cohabit before marriage.

PRIDE

The first Pride celebration was held in Vietnam in 2012. Tam Nguyen, who was the driving force behind the first, told BlueNotes support was high. It began as a small and happy bicycle ride through the streets of Hanoi and kept relatively low-key thanks to longstanding government aversion to things which resemble demonstrations.

"The last four Pride celebrations took place with tremendous support from the LGBTI community across Vietnam, diplomatic community, international organisations and most recently the corporate sector," Tam said.

"It has contributed significantly in creating the momentum for the LGBTI movement in Vietnam and is now one of the symbols of the LGBTI movement in Southeast Asia."

Tam said the community has also seen major corporate support from international companies ranging from Google and IBM to law firm Baker McKenzie, KPMG and PwC.

Activists now push for more inclusion on a range of rights from healthcare to employment. Changing social and family attitudes to LGBTI people remains important.

The government's repealing of a ban on gay wedding ceremonies has not gone the full way to recognising the legal and civil side of a gay marriage.

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Photographer: Maika Elan/VII

"We were lucky not to get shut down but I have to say VietPride contributes to awareness of the government on the issues and understanding the public is ok with it so the government is ok (too)," doctor and activist Anh Thuan said.

"We have to acknowledge the government is very responsive to the transgender issues."

He also suggests it was a clever long term strategy to stem a "drainage" of medical fees to Thailand.

Sex-change surgery is not common in Vietnam at this point the way it is in Thailand. But the nation does have a thriving and varied wedding industry, from gowns and comperes to events halls, performers and even stand-in parents. Even some of Vietnam's top photographers moonlight as wedding photographers when they're not shooting for The New York Times.

These parades and the ASEAN Pride music festivals held in Hanoi show rapidly changing attitudes and a more international Vietnam.

At the same time, "I don't think the government really cares about being a leader in this area (of the world)," Doctor and activist Anh Thuan Nguyen told BlueNotes. "Its interest is more in inclusiveness and respect for LGBTI as a human right as an incentive to get through trade agreements like the TPP."

He points out LGBT rights are "not really a cup of tea (sic)" in other ASEAN members, or the newly formed AEC. He did however think Thailand would allow gay marriage before Vietnam (sort of) did.

PE DE, PROSTITUTES AND FUNERAL PROCESSIONS

The rule changes are aimed at helping transgender people by, again, allowing them within the complicated fences of red tape the Vietnamese government maintains.

But again, in a nation where ID cards are mandatory, it helps when one's appearance matches the written gender. Such a move will surely help Saigon's singing and dancing ladyboys, who often perform at funerals and weddings.

Whilst Vietnam's Buddhists tend not to get too worked up over same-sex marriage, what of the six million Catholics? Vietnam has the largest Catholic population after the Philippines in Southeast Asia. There has been no published pronouncement.

Father 'Maria' Doan Van Thanh, 63, of Nha Tho Xom Chieu (Chieu village church) in District 4, built in 1858, said parishioners are discouraged from inviting the performers to funerals.

"It's a rule among the parishioners – they are not allowed to ask pe de to come," he said, although it has little to do with the Church's rules on homosexuality.

"It's noisy and annoys people in the area. The Church emphasises praying for the dead rather than attracting others to come by to see pe de."

GAY, DAY TO DAY

How easy life is for LGTB people in Vietnam depends largely upon the same things it does in most places: class and location. If you are gay, educated and live in the city life may not be hard. However a recent story in Thanh Nien News highlights a survey that noted high levels of discrimination against LGBTI youth by peers, school teachers and even family.

"In a November report, UNESCO cited a Vietnamese study as saying that 44 percent of local LGBT students experienced stigma, discrimination and violence as a result of divergence from established gender norms," the report said.

Vietnam's system of top-down command and control has not yet been able to change all attitudes at grassroots levels. If you are from the countryside things may be harder. In a far flung part of Saigon's District 3, there is a hotpot restaurant staffed by ladyboys. Most of the customers didn't care and ate there for the especially good lau.

The owner started it as a place for kids from the country to come and work if their families had thrown them out, or they couldn't get work elsewhere. Many spoke of having to cut their hair or grow out their eyebrows if they wanted to go home for a visit.

"Well, I think most of us choose to not talk about it to our parents," who works in advertising in Saigon, told BlueNotes. "If they know they know... It's not something we want to talk about over dinner. I guess it's an Asian thing, we don't talk much about our personal life."

Vietnam's ladyboys, known as pe de, have long earned an income from performing at events like funerals, one of the few ways they could make some money given LGBTI people more generally are often forced into narrow roles.

Pe de as a slang term most likely came from a derogatory French term whilst bong, another term, also translates as 'shadow': a gay man being a shadow of a man, according to author Nguyen Van Dung, who published a 2008 memoir on being gay in Vietnam.  

The performers came from District 4, which borders downtown District 1 and is these days filled with KFCs, French bakery chain Tous Le Jours outlets and comfortable high rise apartment buildings. It wasn't always that way, however.

Separated from the rest of the city by canals on all sides the area was an island of iniquity until solid bridges were built and the city gentrified thanks to close to a decade of what were largely economic boom times. Colourful does not do it justice.

It was home to a couple of good French restaurants like the Guillaume Tell in war days, and an area for US black servicemen and before that Francophone Africans who fought against the Viet Minh.

Nguyen Van Hong, 58, grew up in District 4 and runs a small pool hall near the port.

"It used to be very different from other parts of HCMC …People used to be afraid of entering," he told me in an earlier interview.

It was the part of town most ladyboys ended up. There wasn't much work for them back in the day so they'd amuse themselves playing guitar and singing together. They were good enough to be invited to sing at events and later funerals, according to Linh Trang, a pe de in her 50s.

More generally whilst LGBTI rights are being expanded notions towards sexuality still skew traditional. Cosmopolitan Magazine, since its first Vietnamese issue in 2012, has tied itself in knots writing about sexuality without incurring the ire of the censors. In that context homosexuality may still have some way to go, but it's off to a good start and a beneficial one for US-Vietnam relations and human rights dialogues.

Helen Clark was a Hanoi-based foreign correspondent and magazine editor for six years. She has written for Time, The Economist, the Australian Associated Press and The Diplomat, among many others.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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