Vietnam sexual minorities await house session with bated breath

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Lawmakers expected to discuss same-sex marriage among other issues in October

Members of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual (LGBT) group from Ho Chi Minh City hand out gifts to poor children in the Mekong Delta. Vietnamese lawmakers will debate amendments to the Constitution and Marriage and Family Law in October, including LGBT issues. FILE PHOTO

Thao Nguyen does not hesitate to publicly admit she is a lesbian despite the discrimination and stigma homosexuals face in Vietnam, a traditional society ruled by Confucian social mores and Buddhist beliefs.

"We have loved each other for a long time," the 30-year-old from Tien Giang Province says, tightly holding the hands of her lover.

"We also have the same wish like other couples to have a wedding, be recognized as spouses, and become a member of the other's family."

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More and more lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual (LGBT) people are raising their voice to demand legalization of same-sex marriages and sex reassignment, especially as members of the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, are expected to vote on amendments to the Constitution and the Marriage and Family Law this October.

According to a survey by Information Connecting and Sharing, an NGO for the LGBT community, there are around 1.65 million LGBT in Vietnam.

Many of her friends have gone to the US and Canada to get married legally, Nguyen says.

"I don't know if Vietnam will recognize [same-sex marriage]. Otherwise, it should have regulations to protect LGBT people because I am so tired of suffering discrimination."

Khoa, a gay man in Ho Chi Minh City, says homosexuality should not be considered a sensitive issue because then it would be ignored.

Recognizing same-sex marriages has become an "irreversible trend" since the Netherlands became the first nation in the world to do so in 2001, with an average of one or two countries following ever since, he points out.

"We cannot invoke tradition to ban same-sex marriages.

"Tradition does not prevent people from loving each other or getting married. Homosexual marriages should be allowed just like heterosexual marriages."

While same-sex marriages are outlawed in Asia, they are legal in 14 countries on four continents and in parts of Mexico and the US. England and Wales will allow it from 2014.

Chance for change

Experts and officials are looking forward to the October legislative session, hoping LGBT rights will be upheld.

Le Quang Binh, a sociologist who heads the Hanoi-based non-profit Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), says recognizing same-sex marriages soon will be big progress for Vietnam.

"Many people from other Asian countries are surprised and jealous when I tell them about this prospect," he says.

The iSEE and the Legislative Research Institute, an affiliate of the National Assembly's Standing Committee, held a conference last weekend on LGBT issues attended by many lawmakers from southern cities and provinces and LGBT members.

Hoang Van Tu, deputy director of the institute, said at the conference this was a good time to enshrine these rights in the Constitution and laws.

"We are amending the 1992 Constitution. It has a chapter on human rights and citizen's basic rights and duties. I hope the [LGBT] rights are included," he told Vietweek on the sidelines of the conference.

The Marriage and Family Law, Gender Equality Law, and the Civil Code do not have any provisions regarding LGBT rights, he said.

"I totally sympathize [with LGBT people] because anything innate should be recognized.

"I was really moved to listen to several Hanoi lesbian couples recently. They love each other and want to be recognized."

He promised to report about the conference to the Standing Committee and lawmakers so that they could be better informed about LBGT issues before the debate begins.

In limbo?

Many LGBT people too are looking forward to amendments to the Marriage and Family Law legalizing same-sex marriage come October.

But there are fears they may be disappointed even if the ban on same-sex marriages is lifted.

At a press conference on July 26, Duong Dang Hue of the justice ministry said if the ban is lifted the government would no longer fine violators, but nor would it recognize such marriages.

At a conference held by the Vietnam Women's Union on July 17, attendants were divided over whether to recognize same-sex marriages.

Recently the HCMC People's Committee, the municipal government, wrote to the Ministry of Justice opposing legalization of same-sex marriages.

This would erode the values of traditional marriage and disorient youths' perception about sexuality, it warned.

Tran That, an official at the ministry, says he does not expect lawmakers to amend the marriage law in October.

There should a long-term process to draft laws related to the LGBT community, including an official channel for them to express their opinions before drafting a bill on the issue, he says.

However, Binh maintains there is an urgent need for legalizing same-sex marriages and sex reassignment.

Pointing to a series of studies about LGBT people in Vietnam, he says the main problem is not a lack of relevant studies but how to share the information with lawmakers and whether they want to learn about it so they can better protect the rights of LGBT and their families.

Vietnam is on the right track to protecting LGBT, thanks to active mobilization by the community, social organizations, the media, and even government agencies, he says.

"The issue of same-sex marriage has been discussed in official policy-making conferences is the right move"¦ Scientific and human information has been discussed.

"Finally, human rights and equality will be respected because they are Vietnam's development goals.

"I think we can find thousands of reasons for legalizing same-sex marriage if we support human rights and equality."

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