Storming a heterosexual bastion

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That the government is considering same-sex marriages is a huge step forward for the LGBT community not only in Vietnam, but in the region as well

 
Phyllis Siegel embraces Connie Kopelov, seated, after the couple became the first to marry at the Manhattan City Clerk's office in New York, where gay marriages became legal last July. Photo: Bloomberg

A gay couple in the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang recently exchanged wedding vows at a ceremony attended by their parents and hundreds of guests; a lesbian couple in Ca Mau Province only halted their wedding in February after authorities objected; a lesbian couple in Hanoi and a gay couple in Ho Chi Minh City too grabbed headlines after photos of their weddings and celebrations went viral online.

Increasingly in a society driven by Confucian social mores and where singers are fined for wearing skimpy clothes on stage, gay and lesbian couples are confronting social disdain and legal constraints by coming out and declaring their orientation.

The country's leadership is taking note. And considering legalizing same sex marriages.

The Ministry of Justice is currently polling public opinion on the legalization of same sex marriages as it drafts amendments to prevailing marriage laws. The amendments are set to be submitted to the National Assembly next May for approval.

Advocacy groups and activists have welcomed this move, saying Vietnam could become a regional vanguard in fully acknowledging same sex marriages of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community.

"As far as I know, no Asian country allows same sex marriages," said Le Quang Binh, a sociologist who directs the non-profit Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment in Hanoi.

"This idea has impressed my colleagues from other countries in the region who are very hopeful that Vietnam would be able to deliver on this," Binh, who has headed several research projects on lesbian and gay issues, told Vietweek.

Stacked odds

While same sex marriage is outlawed in Asia, it is legal in 11 countries scattered over four continents (North America, South America, Africa, and Europe) and in parts of Mexico and the US.

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President Barack Obama's open support for gay marriages in the US has given homosexuals and advocacy groups across Asia a boost. They are hopeful that it could usher in a big rethink among regional leaders on the issue.

In Southeast Asia, homosexuality is punishable in Malaysia by law through caning and up to 20 years in jail. In Indonesia, 52 regions have enacted the Sharia law from the Koran which criminalizes homosexuality, though it only applies to Muslim residents.

The Vietnamese justice ministry said in a statement that same sex marriage remains a "sensitive issue" that has elicited controversy. It said that to guarantee individual freedom, same sex marriage needs to be recognized, but also maintained that it was still too early to legalize it.

But LGBT rights advocates have remained sanguine.

"The proposal to legalize same sex marriage is already a big step forward," said Nguyen Minh Thuyet, a former outspoken lawmaker who has publicly thrown his support behind the move.

"Just a few years ago, such an idea ran into fierce opposition from lawmakers and politicians," said Thuyet, who retired last year.

Proponents of same sex marriage say recognizing the practice allows gay and lesbian people to live, work and raise families as full participants in society with the same rights and responsibilities as other citizens.

Those in the opposing camp dismiss the need for legitimacy of same sex marriages by saying it would just erode the traditional values of Vietnamese society.

But Thuyet argued that the core value of any society would be to enable every citizen to pursue their own happiness, not the other way around.

"We just cannot make the life of a gay or lesbian person miserable because of rigid traditional norms or ingrained social stigma. It is time for Vietnam to acknowledge their full rights as citizens," Thuyet told Vietweek.

Change of heart

Advocates say the biggest hurdles facing the legalization of same-sex marriage in the Vietnam are stigma and discrimination.

A number of independent studies have found a majority of citizens and officials considered people of different sexual orientation "unnatural" or "sick". Some even likened them to a "social evil" or a result of debauchery.

But there has been distinct change in attitude of late, not the least among Vietnamese parents of children who have confessed their different sexual orientations.

Khanh, a 29-year-old gay employee at a supermarket in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1, has been living together with his partner and his extended family since 2009.

"My parents accepted that and respected my orientation," Khanh told Vietweek, declining to reveal his full name because he did not want too much publicity.

"My mother even likes my partner because he is caring and lives responsibly," Khanh said. "We do no harm to anyone."

But Khanh admitted he was "a lot luckier" than most peers who still face ostracism and hostility from both family members and society at large.

Chau, a gay social worker in HCMC, has been allowed by his mother to live with his partner in her home since last year.

"But she does not tolerate us coming out about our orientation," Chau said. "She thinks it's a shame and disgrace to do so.

"My brother always shows his disgust whenever he sees us. He said we cannot be normal to live that way."

Both Chau and Khanh said they have seen an increasing number of parents letting their children live with their partners in their homes. Though no official statistics on homosexual people in Vietnam are available, they estimated that up to eight out of ten homosexual couples they know are living with their extended families.

But Binh, the gay rights activist, dismissed such estimates, saying it was too "arbitrary."

The mother of a gay teenager in HCMC backed Binh's argument, citing her own experience. K.C is a government officer who is living in District 3. Her teenage son has come out as a gay and C. said she has respected his orientation despite vehement protests from her husband and family members.

She said she admired other parents who have allowed their kids to wed or live together, but insisted that would not be the case for her son, at least for now.

"He's too young to live with his partner," L. said. "Perhaps some time in the future, but not at this moment.

"I'm also sure that many other parents whose kids are gay or lesbian don't fully understand this issue and won't tolerate them living together with their partners."

Good start

Thuyet, the retired lawmaker, said the "positive" response from officials at the justice ministry, which is promoting the bill, is a good start.

But there is still a long way to go, he added.

"If you want to pass the bill, then you will have to be able to prod around 500 lawmakers into believing that it is good for the society to legalize same-sex marriage," he said.

"It is a question of facing and swaying the mindset and perception of 500 individuals. That will be a tough test to pass."

Chau, the HCMC gay social worker, was sitting with his partner in a District 1 café with Vietweek. He was very proud of the engagement rings they have bought for each other.

For Chau, the prospect of legalizing same sex marriage was "light at the end of my tunnel." Even if the bill is struck down, Chau said, people like him would wait for another chance.

And if their dream comes true?

"Then I'm afraid all the restaurants in HCMC would be fully booked by couples like us," Chau said.

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