Published July 27, 2015 in Episode 14
At last year’s festival, Việt Pride hosted a bike ride close to 700 cyclists, riding through the streets of Hà Nội, waving the rainbow flags; they are the symbol of gay pride. Chu Thanh Hà, one of the cyclists and festival participants remembers that day vividly.
"People along the streets, they can see us, and they ask a lot of questions," she says. "About three years ago, it came as a new image, very new, and sometimes very strange to Vietnamese people, and nowadays, people feel very familiar with the rainbow flag, and they are very friendly to us."
As Vietnamese people become more aware of the rainbow community, and perceptions towards it slowly begin to change, this year’s Việt Pride theme, “We are queer, We are here,” seems timely. The events begin in late July and organizers expect it to be the largest gathering of the LGBT community in Việt Nam to date. LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered, the generally accepted acronym can be a mouthful, and more letters seem to be added over the years to now include QIA for queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual or ally.
Nguyễn Thanh Tâm doesn’t like those narrow labels, but he identifies as a young LGBT activist and scholar for Hà Nội. Tam sees the fight for LGBT rights as one of the biggest social movements in modern Việt Nam:
"In Việt Nam, first of all, it’s quite homogenous, or it was made to be homogenous, so if you look back to the history, you don’t see a lot of uprising and protests, there were some, but relatively I wouldn’t consider that a very big number or a very strong history of social movements. So actually, this generation is the first one that stirred up a nation-wide movement. So that is the first challenge that we faced.”
There are more than 1.6 million LGBT citizens, ages 16-59 in Việt Nam, according to the Institute of Studies for Society, Economy, and Environment in Hà Nội, but among the population of 90 million, questions about identity or sexuality never fully solidified for Tâm until going abroad.
"I never really had the language of sexuality and I think that we didn’t even have the terms to call LGBT people back then, so I never had an idea that one day I would become an LGBT activist," Tâm recounts.
Tâm studied Singapore and attended Stockholm Pride in 2011.
But then I started to realize I want to be part of this community, I wanted to make a difference, I wanted to be in Việt Nam and try to do something about it, because I think it is important for children to grow up in an environment where identity is not marginalized, so I wanted to do something for young people in Việt Nam, so that no one has to grow up feeling like they are the only person in this world.”
Inspired, Tâm moved back to Hà Nội and started Việt Pride in 2012.
"One of the biggest differences in Việt Nam compared to Europe and North America is that family acceptance plays an important role. Like China, Việt Nam is very Confucian-based, in which there is a set of expectations of parents for children, and it is strongly embedded in our culture. So that is one of the biggest reasons why people come out to everyone, but not their family," Tâm explains.
In 2012, Việt Nam’s government passed the law to permit same-sex marriage. A move which would have launched Việt Nam to the forefront of gay rights in Southeast Asia, but it stopped short. Instead, the government abolished fines for same-sex weddings, and in January this year, the new marriage law went into effect, effectively lifting the ban on same-sex marriages. So while same-sex marriages can now take place, they still lack the full recognition and protections of the Vietnamese government.
"You cannot see acceptance of LGBT every where, every place, every time, but in general, at least you see that there is such a community in Việt Nam, and this is very important because many Vietnamese don’t believe, or didn’t believe that LGBT existed in Việt Nam," Tâm says. "They thought that it might be a western import to Việt Nam, or it’s just a phase that will pass, and it influenced because of the western films that portrayed LGBT people, etc.”
Việt Nam has made some progress to accepting and perhaps even embracing LGBT citizens. The growing support for Việt Pride over the years is evidence. A major state newspaper Tuổi Trẻ which translates to “The Youth,” also published its first issue devoted to the topic of same-sex marriage in recent years, and has been covering gay rights topics. Then there is the popular online sitcom, “My Best Gay Friends,” which has helped introduce positive LGBT characters to an audience that does not identify as LGBT.
The show’s director, Huỳnh Nguyễn Đăng Khoa, said in an interview, “I am gay, and I see my life as very normal. That’s why I want to bring true images of homosexuals to everyone to change their perspectives on us.”
Still, it seems that gay rights are becoming culturally more accepted in a country where basic human rights are hotly debated and infringed upon. The lack of basic freedoms has manifested itself, and Tâm’s social advocacy for gay rights under an authoritarian government.
"The legal framework in Việt Nam is also arbitrary in some areas, for example if you want to obtain a permit to organize a peaceful assembly, it is technically quite impossible to do it, so I’m not sure how the legal framework is going to change in the future, but right now as an organizer, and as a Pride organizer and trying to do like, the bicycle rally, sometimes I find it quite challenging to really have a hold of the legal frameworks in Việt Nam in terms of peaceful assembly and freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”
Bloomberg Business reports that Việt Nam has seen a large increase in gay tourists from overseas. Some say that the Vietnamese government is trying to make the country more “gay friendly” and tolerant on the surface, in order to attract foreign visitors and boost its economy. Another argument why gay rights have seem to made headway in Việt Nam is that many local and international NGOs including embassies, have come to support Việt Pride, and other LGBT events, such as Awakening to the Rainbow in 2013, which had more than 10 thousand participants to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in four major cities.
"The major assets to the Việt Pride is the very visible festival. It’s not only behind closed doors discussing about LGBT rights, it’s out in the open, in that sense I think it’s really important that you can feel the energy in the city, and it definitely raised the awareness among the people in Hà Nội of the rights of the LGBT community." says Jasper van Mastrigt, a policy officer at the Dutch embassy in Hà Nội, who is collaborating with Việt Pride on a film screening about family acceptance. Coming from the Netherlands, the first country to legalize gay marriage, he believes that tolerance begets progress.
"To me it all boils down to the idea of respecting diversity of people, so I think that we shouldn't regard different opinions and values as a problem. All the countries can be great assets to society and economies, and I think values like creativity and freedom are very important for individuals, thats for sure. But those values are also beneficial to the broader society and economy," he adds.
As Tâm and a core group of activists continue to organize and grow Việt Pride, they are counting on people like van Mastrigt, allies and supporters from both inside and outside of Việt Nam. Like many activists and human rights defenders wanting a better future for Việt Nam, Tâm stresses the importance of the LGBT movement to be even more inclusive:
"When you go to any LGBT event, you see a lot of young people, but I think it’s important to make it a movement for everyone, of all age groups, of all classes, and gender and sexualities, etc. So now it’s of concern how we can draw in people who are in their mid-30s and 40s and 50s, because I would wish for the movement to be the voice for all of the minority people, not just one age group, or one group of particular class or education status or a province or city in Việt Nam.