Lesbian lamentation

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Hanoi researchers find Vietnamese lesbians victims of social isolation

A visitor at an exhibition displaying photos of female homosexuals at Ho Chi Minh City's Youth Cultural House in November 2009. Gay children suffer emotional persecution from parents who were themselves the victims of community prejudice, the first institutional study on the lesbian community in Vietnam has found.

Chi, a 23-year-old lesbian, told researchers that her parents locked her in a virtual prison after learning of her relationships with other women.

"It was such a horrifying time. My parents knew Diep and I loved each other. They seized my cell phone, cut the home phone line and locked me in our house... They always went through my pockets to see if Diep had sent something to me. They even beat and insulted me," she told researchers from the Institute for Study of Society, the Economy and the Environment (ISEE).

"Several months ago when I was dating Thuy, my mother attempted to commit suicide by jumping into West Lake. Later, they forced me to make a choice between being a normal girl and ending relations with them."

Chi's story is not uncommon.

Last month, the ISEE released a report which described a vicious cycle of social discrimination that tore apart numerous Hanoi families.

Nguyen Thi Thu Nam, a PhD candidate and one of four sociologists who authored the survey, said she hoped their findings would facilitate a positive change.

"There have been many articles featuring homosexuals in the media but they hardly cover the entire homosexual community specifically the lesbian community," she told Thanh Nien Weekly.

In the study, 40 lesbians and female bisexuals filled out questionnaires, sat for interviews and continued to be monitored by ISEE researchers over a nine-month period starting March 2009. In some cases, friends and family were also interviewed.

All of the names were changed to protect the identities of those interviewed.

Nam said that her team's findings represent the first institutional study on the subject in Vietnam. Nam said many of the study's subjects described a vicious cycle of discrimination. Gay children suffered emotional persecution from parents who were themselves the victims of community prejudice.

Dr. Donn Colby is the in-country Medical Director of the Harvard Medical School AIDS Initiative in Vietnam (HAIVN). He has been doing research on male homosexual populations in the country for the past eight years.

"Most families would not accept a homosexual member in their families," Dr. Colby told Thanh Nien Weekly. "They would do whatever they could to change [their child's sexuality]."

Dr. Colby said that very little research in Vietnam had been conducted on sexuality (in any form) prior to the eruption of the AIDS epidemic.

"The HIV epidemic created an impetus for research about sexuality in general," he said. "As it became more acceptable to do research on sexuality it became more acceptable to do research on male homosexuals. Female homosexuals don't really have any public health problems related to their sexuality."

Dr. Colby said he had not encountered any research on Vietnamese lesbian populations thus far.

Even from a clinical perspective, they have been largely ignored.

Hidden and alone

Many of the women interviewed said that they grew up fearing that their parents would discover their secret. At the same time, most of the candidates expressed a yearning to be accepted and acknowledged.

Lucy, 21, is a university sophomore with good grades and an active student life. She is loved by her friends and family.

Regardless, Lucy feels she must conceal her homosexuality from everyone, including her parents, for fear of being ostracized.

"I used to think about telling [the truth to my parents]. But I changed my mind after thinking twice to protect my love," she was quoted, by the researchers, as saying. "If I spoke out, my parents would prevent us from meeting each other."

Lucy was also afraid that telling the truth would hurt her parents. "My parents would be very sad to know that they raised such a child," she said. "I would cave in if they threatened suicide to force me to stop being like this."

A 29-year-old lesbian referred to as Lien Anh expressed the same concerns. "One hundred percent of families wouldn't want their child living an odd life," she is quoted as saying in the report.

The researchers also found that the social isolation felt by these closeted lesbians can become excruciating when their secretive relationships deteriorate.

"I feel like I am living alone in this world. There is no one else besides me and my love," said 23-year-old Ngoc Anh, a female homosexual. "When our relationship ended, I lost several kilograms from skipping meals but my parents didn't know about that."

Harmful assumptions

Nam and her colleagues encountered rather rigid assumptions and ideas among the parents of gay children.

ISEE researchers interviewed the mother of a 23-year-old female homosexual who implored them to help treat her daughter's "disease" even after she had been presented with research and documentation proving that homosexuality is not an illness.

Other parents interviewed by the Institute expressed concern that their daughters would not be able to find happiness as a homosexual. Many of these parents did not consider the possibility of their daughters participating in a serious live-in relationship with a person of the same sex.

"It is necessary to reconsider social perception and make some positive changes regarding the issue," the study's authors urged. "The findings may help reduce social discrimination against gays. Our hope is that, if the parents of gay children suffer less social pressure, they will, in turn, be more accepting of their kids."

Uyen, a 40-year-old lesbian, told the story of a Ho Chi Minh City homosexual whose father had allowed her to live with her female lover.

"Her father said he wanted her daughter to marry the one she loves," Uyen was quoted as saying. "I wish my parents could think like hers."

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