Vietnam on right track to legalize same-sex marriages, but miles to go

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A woman poses with a rainbow flag displaying the words "˜Viet Pride' as she prepares to take part in Vietnam's first ever gay pride parade on a road in Hanoi on August 5. Activists point out that merely allowing same-sex marriages would not usher in social tolerance for such couples or eradicate the severe discrimination in a Confucian society where homosexuality was once labeled as taboo and even a "˜social evil.'

They grabbed the paper, read it enthusiastically, but put it away quickly.

The article about the government mulling over whether to allow same-sex couples to legally cohabitate failed to excite a group of gay men in Ho Chi Minh City.

"This doesn't really matter," Nguyen Van Trung, a tour guide, told Vietweek. "We have been living together for years and it isn't necessary to recognize it."

In late November several government ministries issued for the first time a joint report that said: "There should be studies to [legally] recognize registered cohabitation by"¦ same-sex couples."

It called homosexuality a "natural sexual orientation" and said recognition of same-sex couples living together is inevitable and "laws should not prevent this" to ensure equal rights for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people.

Gay-rights activists have called this move another major step forward after the Ministry of Justice started polling public opinion on legalizing same-sex marriages last July while drafting amendments to prevailing marriage laws. 

But the activists also pointed out that merely allowing same-sex marriages would not usher in social tolerance for such couples or eradicate the severe discrimination in a Confucian society where homosexuality was once labeled as taboo and even a "social evil."

Trung said: "The main question we are asking is: Will the government allow people like us to wed?"

According to a study released Thursday (December 13) by the Hanoi-based non-profit Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), 89 percent of people surveyed stigmatized the LGBT community.

Support for same-sex marriages was quite low at 37 percent, while 58 percent opposed it. The study surveyed 854 people and interviewed 31 citizens and officials.

Le Quang Binh, a sociologist who runs iSEE, told Vietweek: "The reasons people give to justify their opposition to same-sex marriages reflect the dominant heterosexual philosophy behind sex, marriage, and family.

"Many believe that a family should compose of a man and a woman, so their kids have role models to follow," Binh, who has headed several research projects on lesbian and gay issues, said.

Storming a heterosexual bastion 

Increasingly in a society 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.

No official statistics on homosexual people in Vietnam are available.

A YouTube clip featuring a transgender was released last month to rave reviews. Vietnam held its first public gay pride parade August 5 in Hanoi. The country's first publicized gay wedding went viral online in 2010. Many ceremonies of gay and lesbian couples have also grabbed headlines.

The country's leadership is taking note. Though the Ministry of Justice said same-sex marriages may not be legalized in the short run, a legal framework would be important for the courts in case of disputes between cohabiting same-sex couples.

The new law is looking to provide them with basic rights such as inheriting and adopting children.

"Whether the government recognizes same-sex marriages or not, I think we cannot continue with the social stigma against LGBT people," Justice Minister Ha Hung Cuong said last July.

"The government needs a legal mechanism to safeguard the legitimate legal interests of same-sex couples living together," Cuong said.

While same-sex marriages are outlawed in Asia, they are legal in 11 countries on four continents and in parts of Brazil, Mexico, and the US.

France is debating the issue now, and President François Hollande continues to face objections from the Church on his pledge to recognize same-sex marriages.

US 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 with 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.

Even in Singapore, activists say many religious groups would oppose such legislation and many citizens, especially those from the older generation, would find it difficult to accept this on grounds of morality. They say that is why Singapore is far from considering legalizing same-sex marriages, and the city state is still debating whether sodomy should be decriminalized.

Given this, Vietnam could become a regional vanguard in allowing same-sex marriages of the LGBT community, experts say.

"I would say that Vietnam will be well ahead of many countries in the world, not just Asia," an Asian diplomat told Vietweek on condition of anonymity.

"On whether Vietnam could be an example for other Asian countries if it adopted such a law, I think that Vietnam would provide a model for other countries to study but not necessarily immediately imitate"¦ due to the heavy influence of religion and culture on Asian societies," the diplomat said.

"˜Just disgusting'

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

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

Another setback is that those in the opposing camp dismiss the need for legitimacy for same-sex marriages by saying it would just erode the traditional values of Vietnamese society.

"Marriages should only be between men and women to meet their physical and child-bearing needs," Ha Thi Thanh Van, an official at the Vietnam Women's Association, said at a meeting aimed at polling public opinion on same-sex marriages in July.

"Allowing same-sex marriages would have a bearing on 22 million Vietnamese households. I don't think we should amend the law."

Van's organization is just one of many government and state agencies whose positions the justice ministry will have to consider along with public opinion before submitting its proposal to the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, next May.

It is likely to recommend same-sex marriages or some other type of legal recognition with rights, probably the latter.

Then it will have to be able to prod around 500 lawmakers into believing that it is good for the society to legalize same-sex marriages.

"It's an untested bitter pill," Binh of iSEE said. "But at least things are moving somewhat and we have increasing support."

Experts say though legal approval would not change social perceptions overnight, by legalizing same-sex marriages the government would send a strong signal to society that allowing same-sex people to wed is the right thing to do, and it would accelerate social acceptance.

"We are a step closer to legalizing [same-sex marriages]. But I'm not sure how close it is," Binh said.

But notably there has been a distinct change of late in attitudes among Vietnamese parents of children who have confessed to having a different sexual orientation, experts say.

Kim Chau, a teacher and the mother of a gay teenager in HCMC's District 3, said she saw no reason to prevent her son from finding his own happiness provided the laws allow that.

"I know many other mothers who feel very nervous about the future of their kids if they choose to live with their gay partners. They are worried that their kids would face severe disdain and ostracism in both life and work," she told Vietweek.

"That is a legitimate concern as society is not still open enough to accept such differences."

Only 13 percent of 854 people surveyed have correct understanding of the cause of homosexuality, even though the World Health Organization deleted homosexuality from its International Classification of Diseases in 1990, the iSEE study said.

"The public understanding of homosexuality is [still] limited. Many still believe that homosexuality is a disease," Binh said.

Another teacher, a mother of a 27-year-old man in Tan Binh District, said she would never tolerate a gay son.

"Being gay is just disgusting. People can criticize me for being too conservative, but I'll never ever change my mind," she said, declining to be named.

"I think I'll commit suicide should one day my son comes out as a homosexual."

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