From touching contemporary stories and precious personal items to still-scanty historical documents, the culture of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people in Vietnam is being archived by the Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population.
Dinh Thi Nhung, the curator of the archive at the Hanoi-based NGO, said the archive is and should be an ongoing project because many things are still lacking.
For instance, the archive is looking for more stories from older generations of LGBT people, but some old people she reached out to did not identify themselves as such.
They are who they are and live their life naturally without having to call themselves anything and reject labeling, she said.
The question of identity, of “who am I?” thus hardly came up and LGBT people most often just talk about their feelings, Nhung said in a speech at Nha San Collective, an experimental art space in Hanoi.
The issue of “discrimination” is also a foreign concept since many LGBT people in Vietnam do not come out. As a result, there are few obvious, outward signs of social discrimination against them.
But there is real and tangible “sorrow” and stories about it are grouped under that title in the Personal Items section of the archive.
The greatest source of sorrow comes from family - the rejection by parents and siblings.
The parents of a gay man who has passed away still cannot face the truth or talk about him.
His family accepted the fact he was an effeminate medium who often performed spiritual rituals and loved to take care of his looks. But the rest of the truth - that he had a wife but led another love life with younger men -- was a forbidden topic.
His nephew sent his story, earrings and other pieces of jewelry that he wore to his religious performances to the archive.
Another important section of the archive is the historical one that attempts to collect materials printed before 2000 about LGBT people in Vietnam.
Though still scanty, the old materials shed some light on the changing discourse about LGBT people throughout history.
In the first half of the 20th century, for instance, newspapers printed in Vietnam described homosexuals as if they were criminals.
In the 1960s and 70s in the south they were associated with social ills and diseases, and the medical advances that could change human sex and gender were described positively as something that shook the world and could help homosexuals.
There were also literary works such as Philip Marnais’ Saigon After Dark, a part-fiction, part-journalism book published in 1967, which says the Vietnamese government used good-looking male spies as honeypots to bait American officers and extract information.
Then there was of course the famous third chapter of writer To Hoai’s memoirs Cat bui chan ai published in 1997 about poet Xuan Dieu.
Xuan Dieu was gay and had sex with To Hoai and perhaps other writers too while these people stationed in Viet Bac during the French Resistance.
Nhung said though we might never know for sure because of the lack of documents, some famous names in history might well be homosexual. These include Ba Trieu, one of the national heroes who led a revolt against the ruling Wu Dynasty of China in 248CE.
Ba Trieu eventually lost to the Chinese and killed herself at the age of 23.
Thoi Bao Sai Gon Newspaper in 1961 ran an article about transgender technology in the West. The tone was positive, hoping the new technology could help those who needed it. Photo provided by Dinh Thi Nhung
At 19, when asked about marriage, she famously said, “I just want to ride a powerful wind, stamp on a violent wave, kill a whale in the East Sea, take back our country, build our independence, remove the yoke of slavery, not bow down and become somebody's concubine!"
Nhung said with “queer” eyes, we might discover interesting insights into cases or texts that we do not usually consider homosexual from a “straight” viewpoint.
This is an alternative reading approach suggested by scholar Ngo Quoc Vinh, who, in an essay titled “Deviant Bodies and Dynamics of Displacement of Homoerotic Desire in Vietnamese Literature from and about the French Colonial Period (1858-1954)”, offered a fresh way of understanding some classical texts such as Khai Hung’s novel Hon buom mo tien about a male student’s unrequited love for a Buddhist monk who was a girl disguised as a boy.
The archive can be found on CCIP’s website at http://ccihp.org/