It might come as a surprise to some, but Vietnam is currently marked as one of the more LGBTQ+ friendly countries in Asia. From LGBTQ+ couples announcing their sexual orientation on the country’s popular, yet somewhat unsubtly titled dating show “Come Out – Step into the Light,” to the near-national-hero status of beloved transgendered model and singer Huong Giang, the country can sometimes appear a relative safe-haven for those alienated from their immediate familial communities. Nevertheless, under the outward friendliness there is controversy. Scratch beneath the surface, and deep complexities in attitutes toward the nation’s ‘queer community’ are revealed.
Many first recognized the increasing visibility of the LGBTQ+ community in Vietnam during the 2012 online “I do” campaign, which was initiated to support same-sex marriage across the country. Though, of course, gay culture and all the attendant colors under the queer rainbow have a storied history that goes back much further, with gossip, rumor and talk of immorality a common occurrence.
In the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), a wealth of historical records suggest that the 12th Emperor Khai Dinh (1885-1925) had almost purely homosexual desires and behavior. The emperor was known for his exuberant style and eye-catching appearance and later in life encountered criticism for these characteristics. Despite having a female harem of 12 consorts and concubines, he rarely showed any heterosexual longings, and rarely slept with any of his women during his reign. Instead his passion focused upon his bodyguard and loyal manservant Nguyen Duc Vong, with whom he would spend almost all evenings and would ‘hold him to sleep’ every night.
“Back in the 1990s, LGBTQ+ people were considered as a social evil or as carrying transmittable diseases. In the media, they were usually associated with criminal activity or prostitution,” says Chu Thanh Ha, an activist and founder of transgender rights advocacy non-profit IT’S T Time. “This undoubtedly prevented them from coming out; even if they had done, so they would have been seen as weird or perverts.”
Over the past few years Vietnam has been portrayed in international headlines as a shining light in for gay, taking ever more progressive steps towards LGBTQ+ equality. The capital is now ranked LGBTQ+ friendly, and has organized a series of major and lesser related-events such as its annual Hanoi Pride or fundraising gatherings such as PrideFest.
Nonetheless while attitudes are improving overall, when it comes to legal rights the waters are still murky. Homosexuality and gender diversity have never quite been fully acknowledged or protected in Vietnamese law. Gay marriage for example, sits within the confines of a somewhat bizarre half-way house.
“This undoubtedly prevented them from coming out; even if they had done so, they would have been seen as weird or perverts.”
In 2015, the country decriminalized same-sex marriage, without actually fully legally recognizing it. People can get married, (an improvement on almost every Asian country with the exception of Taiwan), but are not granted the same rights as straight married couples.
More improvements are slowly taking place, with the most recent one being positive legal changes for transgender people. “We have been working on this issue for five years, but it is still stuck in the last phase where need to propose the adjustments at the annual Congress meetings,” says Chu Thanh Ha.
“One thing that really baffles me right now is what we have been advocating only allows changes on legal documents only for those having undergone ‘medical interventions.’ So, it is really difficult to receive wide support and create a social wave to push the government to act quickly. On the other hand, if we pushed the law for completely full transgender rights it would mean starting the process all over again, and we can barely wait any longer!”
Despite the progress, it is not all sunshine and rainbows. Without doubt Hanoi, in particular, can seem an old, slow and conservative city steeped in Confucian tradition, and there are plenty of stories of LGBTQ+ people experiencing intense discrimination, and even violence.
One thing that strikes Chu Thanh Ha is that usually such pressure does not from random illiberal strangers, but from people’s own families. For many it is a case of, ‘being gay is fine, as long as it is not one of my own kids.’
“Over the past few years working as an activist I have known many young people being forced out of home or simply just leaving due to the unbearable suffering they undergo in their own family,’ Chu Thanh Ha says. “This might come as a surprise, but statistics show that most of the physical and verbal abuse that people from LGBTQ+ communities are suffering largely come from their own families.”
“What stopped me from coming out, again and again, was that my mother threatened not to send me to the U.S. if I pursued my ‘improper’ interest in women. Mothers know where to hurt the most, I guess.”
Nga, a bisexual non-binary college student, echoes what Chu Thanh Ha says, through direct experience. “I came out to my mother a total of five times throughout my teenage years before she believed me. What stopped me from coming out, again and again, was that my mother threatened not to send me to the U.S. if I pursued my ‘improper’ interest in women. Mothers know where to hurt the most, I guess.”
It is not a new story, but outdated Vietnamese values undoubtedly hinder the path towards full LGBTQ+ acceptance and equality. For Huan, a 17-year old high-school student, the fixed ideas on gender roles many of her family members hold have forced her to remain closeted.
“I first realized my attraction to girls in middle school. Since then, my sister has discovered my sexual orientation, and I know that my mother has slightly sensed it. But still I do not dare to actually come out, mostly because of my dad and grandparents. They have never said their thoughts directly to me, but their actions speak for themselves,” Huan says.
“I remember one time my mom was trying to read up on the topic of LGBTQ+ to gain more understanding about the topic and my dad came in and just lashed out about what my mom was doing. Recently when there was a show on TV about Lynk Lee, a transgender singer, my grandmother watched it, looked completely disgusted and wondered whether she [Lee] could do a proper job of bearing children”.
Public humiliation and discrimination towards LGBTQ+ people also pose major challenges across Vietnamese society. According to a 2016 publication by iSEE, an organization that works for the rights of minority groups in Vietnam for a more tolerant society, approximately one-third of the community suffers direct abuse, anywhere from shopping malls or restaurants to schools and workplaces. Insults include being called bê đê, a term originating from the French word pédéraste, historically used for men who have sex with young boys. Other abuse includes ái nam ái nữ (half-man, half-woman), or thế giới thứ ba (third gender).
“I would often hear whispers behind my back in female dressing rooms about me being a disappointment to my parents. What I remember most is how one mother, unaware I could speak Vietnamese, told her daughter that ‘parents did not go through the pain of child rearing just so the kid would grow up to be a freak,‘” Nga says.
Huan has experienced similar cruel sniping: “One time as I was walking to my class, a group of girls even stopped me in the hallway and whispered behind my back, ‘I am not being homophobic, but seeing two same-sex people dating is kind of gross.’”
Hanoi is not particularly renowned for its nightlife—it’s certainly not quite the glittery discoball that is Saigon. As a political and cultural center it has its own arc, and can be pleasantly peaceful and outrageously boring at the same time. Before midnight, police often patrol the streets and send wanderers home, that or people sneak off to much-loved secret lock-ins.
However, Hanoi is taking small steps towards a more open and metropolitan nightlife scene, one that caters to people of all persuasions, particularly making space for LGBTQ+ community, and more specifically the drag scene. Hanoi’s vast and varied drag scene often comes as a bit of a surprise to the many foreigners that come to reside in the capital.
“One time as I was walking to my class, a group of girls even stopped me in the hallway and whispered behind my back, ‘I am not being homophobic, but seeing two same-sex people dating is kind of gross.’”
Perhaps, its popularity is fitting; forms of Vietnamese cross-dressing have deep historical roots, such as the centuries-old hầu đồng, a borderline-shamanic folk ritual practiced by certain ethnic minorities in northern Vietnam, which has been recognized by UNESCO heritage and has a strong focus on color and costume-wearing.
One of the chief pioneers Hanoi’s drag community is Nguyen Hoang Gia, a 27-year old beer-brewer who identifies himself as pan-curious genderqueer. After viewing a ‘Drag Race’ party some years ago, he has since performed in drag at many outrageous shows during the past two years, and is one of the founders of Peach – Hanoi’s longest-running drag show—which holds monthly Hanoi-based drag events.
“After one or two drag performances I just really clicked with it, and then I started to dig down more about this type of art,” says the beautiful Gia, sometimes known as Zazazellia. “Whenever I am on stage, I feel like a completely different person. At that moment, I feel I can finally do what I have longed for without any judgement of my appearance or style. The audience is always respectful and supportive.”
Tolerance and acceptance towards drag is on the rise. Even so, Gia can still recall an event in which wine bottles filled with pieces of brick and cement were thrown over a wall at a gay-friendly venue in a vicious homophobic attack. Moreover, there are financial concerns. “There is no way you can make a living based on drag performing. Most people stick to this purely out of passion,” he says.
As plenty of people still choose to remain closeted and quiet, dating for homosexuals is still a tricky subject. “We are on whichever apps that heterosexual people are using, from Tinder to Badoo. But most people are there for hook-ups only,” Gia says.
“Whenever I am on stage, I feel like a completely different person. At that moment, I feel I can finally do what I have longed for without any judgement of my appearance or style.”
Nga, however, was luckier and able simply to find her current girlfriend on Tinder. “I realized that it is much easier to go on public dates as two women, or two feminine-presenting individuals, since women are perceived to be much more physically affectionate anyway,” she says. “My girlfriend and I both present more masculinely, but we can still hold hands in public without much scrutiny. I cannot imagine how difficult it is for gay men to deal with both homophobia and toxic masculinity in public spaces.”
For the time being, there is yet no definite conclusion regarding LGBTQ+ culture in Hanoi. It is easy to compare the capital to its southern counterpart Ho Chi Minh City, for not being open-minded and welcoming enough. Yet, Hanoi has went through a very different history to its more westernized southern cousin, and only witnessed a more positive upturn in attitudes in recent years. Patience and time is much needed. Most, nonetheless, remain optimistic about the capital’s future.
“Changes are on the horizon, and I am confident in the resilience of my community to continue educating the public and advocating for our rights to exist truthfully and to love courageously,” Nga says.
Cover photography courtesy of: hanoipride.vn