Gay and afraid

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Gay community wants to end discrimination that pushes them to margins of society


Members of www.gioihan.net, a forum for gay men, during a charity mission in HCMC. Gay men in Vietnam complain they face heavy discrimination, much at the hands of their own families.

Le Son, 25, keeps his old skirt as though it was treasure.

He had it made to compete in a beauty contest for the male gay community in Ho Chi Minh City when he was 19.

Son will never forget the moment at a HCMC market when his mother, who had never accepted him as a homosexual before, took him to a cloth shop and bought materials for him to make the skirt with.

The vendor asked who the skirt was for and Son said he felt an indescribable happiness when his mother pointed to him and replied: "It's for my daughter." She then showed him the best place to get the garment tailored.

"Her support and words made me know that she accepted my sexuality," Son recalled. "I had never expected her to change her attitude toward me. I was very happy and wanted to laugh aloud in happiness at that time."

Son said his mother now teaches him how to do make up. He loves making up his face when going out with friends. Previously he had made up as a girl in secret before going out.

"But she sometimes found me making up my face," Son recalled.

Neighbors often tease his mother when she takes his hands and feet for a massage. She explains to them that he is her youngest daughter, so she has to pamper him.

Son is now happy to live with his real identity and share it with his mother.

But the mother and son were not always so close.

Neighbors discovered Son was gay when he was 13 and they teased, insulted, and even beat him for behaving "like a girl" rather than a man.

Son's mother felt ashamed any time she heard neighbors gossip and spread rumors about him. She beat him and told him to be strong and behave like a man. His parents refused to support him with money, even for school. So he had to start working for himself and he went through several odd jobs before becoming a prostitute.

Son said his gay friend Luat had suffered even worse violence.

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"His parents locked him in his room and invited a doctor to treat him, because they thought he had a mental problem," said Son. "Luat ran away from home and shared house with me and friends in District 7."

The group of roommates participated in a fashion show for gay man to feed themselves.

Later, Son's mother began to understand that homosexuality didn't mean a horrible life. She saw that many of her son's peers in the neighboring were not gay but led terrible lives that ended in drug abuse and AIDS.

In the end, Son feels he is a lucky man.

Brutality

Lam Thanh Vinh, 33, struggled to hold back the tears as he discussed his personal life.

In high school, Vinh was an excellent student but he was often bullied by his classmates. In one particularly bad incident, a group of kids chased him and pulled off his pants, claiming they wanted to check if he was really a man or a woman.

Then his parents heard he was gay.

"My mother did not say anything," Vinh remembered. "She went straight home and got a rod to beat me. She cried."

Vinh's parents later locked him to the staircase with a chain for 19 days. The chain was long enough for him to go to a nearby toilet, but he had no food, no way to bathe and had little water to drink. They said they wouldn't release him until he agreed to return to the family as a man. He was released when he promised to change his behavior.

"My mother cried a lot at that time," said Vinh, who was then forced to get married and then divorced.

His parents have since renounced him and he hasn't heard from any of his family members in too long to remember.

Vinh now lives an independent life and does social work to help at-risk gay men.

Sadness in numbers

According to a recent survey conducted by the Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population, most homosexuals, bisexuals, and transsexuals in Vietnam face discrimination and are often exposed to violence from their parents and family members.

Hoang Tu Anh from the center said violence was so popular against LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals) that many suffer from mental problems due to abuse at the hands of family members.

Reports of physical violence include beating, binding, and starving, while emotional abuse ranged from private groundings to public insults. Many young gays and lesbians are still forced to marry members of the opposite sex, she said.

According to a survey carried out by Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (ISEE), roughly 47 percent of homosexuals surveyed said they did not admit publicly that they were gay because they were afraid of discrimination, and nearly 40 percent said they kept their sexual orientation a secret because they did not think their families would accept the truth.

Nearly 80 percent of parents told ISEE that they would be upset if they discovered their children were gay or lesbian.

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