Historic Progress for Vietnam’s LGBT Community

Until recently the LGBT community in Vietnam was marginalized, but changes in attitude in the legal and public spheres are coming. From Vietnam’s first gay parade in Hanoi in 2012 to an openly transgender contestant on Vietnam Idol, the country is becoming more tolerant. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the population is young—more than half are under 30—and so less likely than older generations to consider transgenders and gays socially deviant. Vietnam is certainly evolving when it comes to gays issues, and this month we look at the past, present and the hopes for the future of the LGBT community.

Despite intentional omission in recorded history, instances of homosexuality, although rare, did exist in Vietnam’s history. There is ample amount of carefully kept court documents of Vietnamese kings from the 16th, 17th and 19th centuries who maintained male concubines in their harems or favored male company. The most well-known of these was Khai Dinh (1885-1993) who, despite having 12 wives, had only one son who was said to be adopted. It was recorded that he liked to dress flamboyantly and made a hobby of designing clothes for himself and his entourages. Most notably, whenever Khai Dinh went to the theatre, he would order all female roles to be performed by cross-dressing male actors.

At the end of the 1960s, the Saigon Daily reported the existence of a female prostitution ring catering exclusively to female clientele. Shortly thereafter during the American War era, The International Encyclopaedia of Sexuality: Vietnam recorded that there were 18 gay bars and three lesbian bars in Saigon.

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The first modern homosexual wedding in Ho Chi Minh City was on April 7, 1997 between two men (as reported by Reuters) in a small ceremony in defiance of local protests. The couple’s marriage documents were rejected and in response, homosexual marriage was officially outlawed in 1998. The Marriage and Family Law (2000) also expressly listed homosexual marriages (not relationships) as a forbidden union.

One recent legal case involving homosexual people involved a wedding between two men on February 8, 2012 in Ca Mau. The wedding was witnessed by both grooms’ parents and thousands of protesting locals. The wedding was stopped by police, and the two couple were charged a fine and sent for re-education. Citing the Marriage and Family Law of 2000, councilman of the National Lawyers’ Association, Truong Xuan Tam declared that the police had no cause to arrest and fine the grooms, since they had never submitted a marriage form to the government and their wedding held only cultural significance.

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After months of extensive legal lobbying and campaigning by ICS, iSEE and six other LGBT groups in 2013, the newest version of the Marriage and Family Law, updated in 2014, has made international news by abolishing the clause that outlawed homosexual marriages in the 2000 version.

“But that’s only half the fight,” claims Thao, a manager at ICS. Claiming that homosexual marriages, if fully acknowledged by the law, may cause irreparable social instabilities, various groups both within and outside the government have prevented further legislature fully acknowledging and setting legal framework for homosexual marriages from being drafted and approved. What resulted was an awkward legal situation in which the 2014 Marriage and Family Law, according to national assembly representative Dao Van Binh and many lawyers, read more like an incomplete legal article than a full-fledged law.

“According to our own law, anything the government does not expressly forbid is legal and can be done by any of our citizens. This law does not ban homosexual marriages but it also says that it does not actually acknowledge it either. What does that even mean? The law contradicts itself,” Binh has been quoted saying in Tuoi Tre and Nguoi Lao Dong.

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The Fake Homosexual

Vietnamese public view on homosexuals is said to have been influenced by Dr. Tran Bong Son’s theory of “The Fake Homosexual.” A popular gender expert in Vietnam, Dr. Son’s theory states that there are two types of homosexual people: true homosexuals and fake homosexuals. True homosexuals are those who are born with a genetic defect that conditions them to be attracted to people of the same sex. Fake homosexuals are normal people who are seduced into homosexual lifestyles by friends or other external forces.

Dr. Son’s theory was disputed by many doctors and researchers, such as Donn Colby (University of California, San Francisco), Cao Huu Nghia (Pasteur Institute, Vietnam) and Serge Doussantousse (Médècins Sans Frontieres, Laos), for lacking statistics and facts, and constituting only personal opinion. However, since Dr. Son is influential in Vietnam, his theory gained widespread credibility amongst the Vietnamese public and has resulted in numerous attempts to ‘cure’ or ‘re-educate’ LGBT people.

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As Vietnamese culture is heavily influenced by Confucian teachings, LGBT lifestyles are still largely regarded as a social evil. Particular sectors in Vietnamese society view homosexual lifestyles as an unwanted by-product of cultural exchanges with Western countries. In rural areas, openly homosexual people and couples are ostracized, often by their own families. In urban areas, living openly as an LGBT person involves living with a string of perpetual problems of various kinds. Workplace discrimination, unlawful charges, harassment, and hate crimes are all real possibilities, and since only segments of LGBT people are newly recognized by Vietnamese law since the end of 2015, very little protection can be found from law enforcers.

“We fight the long fight,” Thao says. “A major percentage of our society is made up of the young and our surveys have shown that the younger generations of Vietnamese have far greater tolerance as well as acceptance of the LGBT community. Eventually, with time, acceptance will replace the bigotry. In terms of the law being ambivalent, the acknowledgement of our marriages is not the only thing we fight for. We are a diverse community and have many issues we intend to fight for. In the meantime, we have progressed onto other legal battlefields such as the acknowledgement of trans folks.”

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In November 2015, in an unprecedented move, the Vietnamese national assembly has approved a new law legally recognizing and protecting the right of transgender people. This is seen as the greatest step forward for LGBT advocacy in Vietnam. “It has taken a lot of work to bring about this progress,” claims Thao. “This June, we are starting campaigns in other province to educate young gays, lesbians, and transgenders on the new law and how to invoke their rights as lawful and recognized citizens of Vietnam.”


Follow our series on Vietnam’s LGBT community here or download the PDF of our June 2016 issue on “Pride” here.

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