The past weeks seemed to bring serious changes concerning the issue of gay and lesbian rights in Vietnam. On July 29th, the Ministry of Justice of Socialist Republic of Vietnam announced the will to introduce the law legalizing same-sex marriages. The initiative is now going to be subject of consultation before being presented before the National Assembly, which will discuss the issue in Spring 2013. In case the project will gain support of National Assembly, Vietnam will become the first country in Asia to officially recognize the homosexual relationships.
Shortly after the surprising announcement of Ministry of Justice, on August 5th, the first gay parade in Vietnam took place. In the event organized by LGBT community from Hanoi, around 100 hundred people participated. Although the parade did not gain official permission, the police did not intervene and the demonstration went on peacefully, without any incidents.
Although, according to many commentators, it is highly doubtful whether the authorities actually intend to change the situation of gays and lesbians in Vietnam and perceive the project as an attempt to divert the attention of public opinion from more problematic recent issues such as China’s expansion to the South China Sea – the initiative must be recognized as pioneer and somewhat surprising. In the 1990s and early 2000s, which can be described as a time of rapid cultural modernization caused by the Đổi Mới openness policy, the homosexual behavior was treated by the government officials and mainstream media as one of the “social evils”. Gay men were described as either comical and ridiculous or criminal and filthy creatures, while lesbians were virtually absent in official discourse. The attitude of the society towards the homosexuals was also far from tolerant – most of the people tended to deny the presence of LGBT people in Vietnamese society at all, claiming that homosexuality was a purely “Western issue” and therefore gay Vietnamese were just spoiled by the western influence.
It seems interesting to ask a question – what factors make Vietnam the pioneer of gay rights in Asia? At a glance, Vietnam seems to be a much more traditional and conservative society compared to Korean or Japanese societies, which until now did not provide any forms of legalization for lesbian and gay couples. What is more, in the year 2003, Vietnamese authorities, after the reports regarding same-sex marriage ceremonies taking place in various regions of the country, directly banned same-sex marriages. How do the representatives of the Ministry of Justice justify their willingness for changing the law?
One explanation refers to the fact that, contrary to religious activities, strictly monitored by Vietnamese authorities, government does not see the issue of homosexual rights as a threat. Giving rights to homosexuals, Socialist Republic of Vietnam can therefore improve its assessment in the field of human rights. Remarkably, Hà Hùng Cường, the Minister of Justice, in the online chat broadcast on national TV, described legalization of same-sex partnerships as a “human rights issue” (một phần của nhân-quyền).
It seems interesting, that the arguments invoked by the Ministry resemble to a great extent the arguments posed by the advocates of regulating same-sex unions in Poland. As reasons for introducing the new law, such issues as owning common property and right to inheritance are mentioned. What is more, the Vietnamese Ministry includes to these arguments the issue of legal status of children, which raises most controversies in Poland. Contrary to the countries of Western Europe, where the LGBT movement developed from 1960s, Eastern Europe experienced the development of a gay and lesbian movement only after the political transformation of 1989. In the case of Vietnam, the homosexual rights issues came into public in the late 1990s, in the atmosphere of rapid modernization changes of the Đổi Mới era.
A serious difference that must be mentioned is the fact that, while in the West the advocates are mainly LGBT unions and other NGO’s dealing with human-rights issues, in Vietnam the initiative in this field came from the authorities.
The attitude of public opinion towards homosexuals seems to be, at a glance, similar in both countries. According to the SHAPC (STDs/HIV/AIDS Prevention Center) survey conducted in Vietnam in the year 2011, up to 36 percent of interviewees said that they see homosexuality as social evil, 68 percent said homosexuality is a disease and 56 percent said homosexuality is unnatural. In a Polish survey conducted by CBOS in the same year, only 8 percent of respondents claimed that homosexuality “is a normal thing”, 63 described it as a “deviation from the norm, which should, however, be tolerated”, while 23 percent said that homosexuality is a “deviation which should not be tolerated”. Therefore, both societies can be described as quite far from an open and tolerant attitude. Nevertheless, the attitude of Poles and Vietnamese seems to be changing slowly through time. Subsequent opinion surveys conducted in Poland indicate that the acceptance of homosexuality and willingness to give rights to homosexuals is increasing. Concerning Vietnam – where public opinion research is much less developed – the change in public discourse concerning homosexuality can be observed. For example, some movies exploring the LGTB issues were exposed to public, including the widely commented Hot Boy Noi Loan, unfolding in the gay community from Saigon.
However, it seems relevant to mark some important differences in the attitude toward homosexuals present in both cultures. In Poland, as in other countries influenced strongly by Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, homosexual behavior is associated with the notion of sin. Therefore, it cannot be accepted in any form and under any conditions. In contrast to that pattern, Vietnamese culture provides some legitimate areas of expression toward the homosexuals. The best known example is đồng cô – an expression used to describe a male medium possessed by a spirit of a princess, which participates in set of rituals accompanying the cult of Đạo Mẫu (mother goddess). The world of đồng cô medium-dancers, who are involved in homosexual activities was portrayed in an interested movie, Đồng cô by Nguyen Trinh Thi (2007).
Another important issue indicated the difference in the attitude towards homosexuality were same-sex wedding ceremonies, organized from late 1990s in many places in Vietnam, including rural areas. Films portraying these weddings are present in Youtube. It is important to note, that in Vietnam the traditional wedding is not sanctioned by religion and religious laws – as in Catholic Poland – but by the acceptance of families and local community. Therefore, gay and lesbian weddings, performed with support of family and local community, were perceived as legitimatized (although not official) ceremonies. The issue of these couples, married according to traditional rituals, but not officially registered, is now invoked by the Ministry of Justice as an issue requiring formal regulations.
The explanation of the “Vietnam as a pioneer of gay rights in Asia” in terms of smart strategy of Vietnamese authorities, who perceive the gay issue as an opportunity to improve their ratings in the dimension of human rights is probably right – but nevertheless, seems insufficient. The matter requiring closer examination is the complex issue of the place of homosexuality in Vietnamese culture, which – in comparison with cultures of China or Korea – should be described as relatively less “Confucian”. In Vietnam, for centuries different influences, including Buddhism, Taoism and local cults of gods and goddesses were intertwining with each other, creating a complex reality, in which the position of women was relatively high compared to other “Confucian” cultures. The presence of such rituals as above described the phenomenon of đồng cô offered some non-heterosexual people the possibility to express their identity. Undoubtedly, it will be interesting to monitor the process of consultation, which the proposed law act is supposed to come through. The discussion around the introduction of same-sex marriages in Vietnam should reveal a lot about the actual attitude of government and public opinion towards the issue of homosexuality.