A Tale of Two Prides

Published October 24, 2017; Episode 77

The movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights rights has faced an uphill battle, even in 2017. The LGBTQIA+ community - the acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, queer, intersex, asexual and more- and its members have made positive strides in the modern era. In many parts of the world, however it is still underwhelming. The USA only legalised gay marriage in 2015. Australia is still hotly debating legislation.

In East Asia the state of same-sex rights is even worse. Not a single country in either East and Southeast Asia, outside of Taiwan, has legalised same-sex marriage.

But not everything is bleak. You may be surprised to hear that Vietnam has been more open to LGBT activities than its neighbors. Hà Nội has been the capital of a yearly Pride celebration since 2015, which includes panels, festivities, and their own special kind of parade.

If you’re listening closely, you might notice the ringing of bells. Those sounds mark how Hà Nội’s pride parade is a little special from other international Prides. The participants are all riding on bicycles.

Hoàng Giang Sơn, one of the organizers of Hà Nội Pride this year explains this:

“Yeah, so we ride bicycles from one street and then we have a route, and then everybody go to bicycle together. And all the bicycle is decorated in like very colourful colour, and we have like wings, and we have balloons, headbands with flags flying all over. Umm, it’s like a tradition, a tradition.”

Sơn works for iSEE, the Institute for Studies of Society, Economics and Environment. iSEE is one of many organizations that make up the working group for this year’s Pride. Everything is a collaboration, with each organization having a vote in proceedings, democratic democratic process.

This is not the first year for Pride but it is definitely the biggest one so far.

Sơn continues: “So Hà Nội Pride this year is a series of events. So we have two types of events; one is like the common event which is like the opening ceremony, the bike rally, we have it on Sunday. And after the bike rally we have the walking parade and then we have the PrideFest, the youth Pride Festival.”

While there are many parties and festivities throughout the week, the focus isn’t just on the revelry. There are also workshops that run concurrently at different locations in the city hub, with different topics related to the LGBTQ experience. There’s also art on show. There’s a Hanoi Queer History month feature on gay poets, for example. According to Sơn they organise a gallery that displays the LGBT people in the past until now. They document a lot of that, they write stories about them and they put it in the gallery, showing it throughout the week.

Pride is the celebration of LGBTQIA+ rights - LGBTQ for short - and its history in Việt Nam is one of those things that closely follows the rise of social media in the country - slowly at first, and then all at once.

While there have been visible queer culture before, the first Pride in Việt Nam started fairly recent.

According to Minh, a queer activist, speaking under alias, the first Pride was in 2012 in Hà Nội and was called gay pride. He says that he has been working in social activism and social development in the last ten years and specifically the LGBTQ movement in Việt Nam in the last four years. He helped organize Viet Pride in Hà Nội and HMCM in the last four years.

The original Viet Pride started in 2012 in Hà Nội by former activist Nguyễn Thanh Tâm, who while living abroad, was inspired by Stockholm Pride and brought it to Hà Nội. The first one was small, but inspiring, so when 2013 rolled around, there was much more interest. Pride celebrations began to spread and other cities began to host their own events. And that is where the story of Pride in Vietnam diverges.

There are two different usages of Viet Pride - one with a space in the middle, and one without. Like a lot of other things, sometimes language use is complicated - and even more complicated in a purely audio space like Loa.

Minh explains: “And then in 2013 ICS, a local LGBT organization based in Saigon started organizing another pride as well so Tam approached them to organize together but they ended up kind of doing two separate things, so some continued to do them apart in Hanoi.”

From then on, there would be these parallel events that would mark the different years of Pride history in Vietnam. Tam’s original Viet space Pride continued alongside ICS’s Viet no space Pride. There would be additional prides that popped up in other parts of the country, but they were not unified, all Viet no space Prides, with separate branding. Until last year.

Minh continues: “Last year in 2016 all the organizers in Hanoi sat down together decided to work together as a working group called the Pride Hanoi working group to organize together in Hanoi and in and the rest of the country it continued as usual so ICS organized the one in Saigon and then supported the other ones in the country. And then this year we've decided to change the name to Hanoi Pride and business as usual.”

So, in 2017, different cities have now claimed ownership of their own prides.

Sơn adds: “So “Viet Pride Hanoi” has been changed to “Hanoi Pride”, it’s like a localisation of Pride. I think this is a trend in other Prides in Vietnam as well, so we have “Nha Trang Pride”, we have “Long An Pride”, we have like different provinces."

Now in its sixth year, the prides have been going strong. But the movement is not without its growing pains. While the LGBTQ movement in Vietnam is a little unique, in that there has been less pushback from government forces in terms of repression, Pride events are not without issues. Case in point, the parades themselves challenges the government’s laws forbidding the congregation of large crowds. Essentially, walking in a parade is not allowed. So they figured out a way to technically follow the rule.

As Son says: “So in 2012, so I think the organisers thought that “Okay maybe we do not gather by walking but we can gather by riding bicycle, because there’s no law that prevents bike people from riding bicycles around the street, right?”

Other organizers in other cities face other challenges. While police have not actually stopped a parade outright before, there have been instances where authorities literally chase parade participants as they march.

Minh recounts: “They let us happen most of the time. 90% of the time it works, which is a lot compared to many of the social movements in Vietnam. Like look at the environmentalists, look at the human rights defenders, look at people who fight for democracy in the country - people who work for like disability rights. You know it's not like they enjoy as much you know as much like freedom from the government like we do.”

LGBT visibility and openness is not usually what people think of first when they think of Việt Nam. In fact, the entire region of East and Southeast Asia generally has limited to poor support of queer acceptance and rights compared to say, parts of Europe or North America. Same sex marriage, with the exception of Taiwan, is not a thing. Many other countries in the region tend to frown on unions, even if they barely tolerate it. Trans rights generally do not exist.

Surprisingly, then, Việt Nam is more open about queer culture and Pride than their neighbours. According to a report by the UN, homosexuality has never been criminalized in Việt Nam. So, in a kind of default, the country government is at the very least tolerating their queer population.

Like western movements, Vietnam’s inclusion of LGBTQ culture is very city-centric and young. This is a special problem, because it excludes many citizens that cannot participate simply because they are rural, and outside the young age ranges of the activists in the populous districts. Which means their voices are less heard.

Minh explains: “If you're in you know like the northwestern mountainous area like land for example, even if you have internet there, you wouldn't you know...like this is not the kind of place where it is programs-rich. Not just in terms of community events, but also in terms of the policies we fight for, the laws we fight for.”

And the movement has issues with equal treatment of rights between queer men and women, as well. In a patriarchal society like Vietnam, many queer women have found that men's issues have more sway and attention than their own. And their voices get muted in the fight for equality.

Remember how it was mentioned that there was a Viet space Pride and Viet no space Pride? It ties into who coined the terms first. Tam started the usage of Viet space Pride, which preached inclusiveness. Unfortunately, over the years, Viet no space Pride has started to take over, which has slowly erased Tam’s place in history as the woman who created the first parade. It is a strange unfortunate side effect of a patriarchal rewriting of history.

These issues are part of the growing pains for a movement that is challenging the paradigm of activism in Vietnam, where freedom of expression has been historically muzzled.

Pride events stand out for its positivity and openness. Ted Osius, who is the outgoing United States Ambassador to Việt Nam, is openly gay and married. He sums up the current atmosphere pretty well when he attended Pride last year:

“This is a country with traditional values and very big focus on family. But also it’s - there’s a great openness to people who may not fit exactly that traditional mold and there’s a great sense of fairness.”

When Chi-Linh talked to Son, he was getting ready to walk in this year’s parade himself.

“The good thing is that the police seem very supportive last year and also the last five years. Hopefully. So far they been supportive, umm so far. Don’t know what actually happen in the Pride Day but hopefully it good.”

Don’t worry, their parade went off without a hitch.
See you at next year’s pride!