HANOI — Although homosexuality is not illegal in Vietnam, conservative social mores have reinforced prejudices against gays. However, in a sign of changing times, the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender communities held two major events this month, including the country’s first Gay Pride parade.
More than 100 people braved searing hot sunshine Sunday to cycle for more than two hours through the center of Hanoi. They waved rainbow flags and trailing banners with slogans like “I love LGBT” and “different not deviant”.
The event was the culmination of the country’s first gay pride event, aimed at giving the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community more visibility.
Nguyen Thanh Tam, 25, the woman behind the bicycle parade, says she is happy with the turnout, even though it was lower than anticipated.
“It was awesome and you could tell that from people’s faces when they finished the parade," she said. "I’m sure that pride in general and this bike parade in particular will change the LGBT forever. It will never be the same.”
Tam says a higher profile will encourage people to see homosexuality as normal, rather than something to be feared, like a disease. With media coverage that drew international headlines to the event, Tam says the attention has helped reinforce the parade’s message.
“[With] The massive amount of coverage in the local media, I think the awareness of the LGBT community in Vietnam has increased significantly and it paves a good way for the new movement of LGBT rights in Vietnam,” she added.
Just one day before, a much larger event took place in a park in Ho Chi Minh City but to a much smaller audience.
“Hand-in-Hand,” drew more than 1,000 people who met in a park to support gay marriage. Wearing matching tee-shirts, the group sang songs and at one point held hands around two gay couples, one female and the other male, while they made a point of breaking a huge social taboo by kissing in public.
Jacky Tran from Vietnamese organization Support Equal Marriage, says there has been a lot of news about legalizing same-sex marriage in other countries, like the United States, so he feels it’s the right time to bring the discussion to Vietnam.
Tran says many passersby cheered and showed their support during the park rally. However, not everyone was happy to see them.
“These guys have a dog with a rainbow flag on its back and the dog was going around the back to show us that LGBT people were just like a dog,” said Tran.
Although there are no laws forbidding homosexuality in Vietnam, discrimination remains rife.
Lesbians, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender groups are still often depicted in the media as quirky characters in the media. Gay men are frequently portrayed as prostitutes, a stereotype activists are keen to break.
Public violence against LGBT is rare in Vietnam, but sociologist Le Quang Binh, director of the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment in Hanoi, says the situation inside people’s homes can be quite different.
“There are a lot of stories like parents beat their kids because they discover that their son is gay for example," says Binh. "In our study some people put psychological pressures on their children. For example parents take their girl to the lake and say if you don’t stop loving another girl I will jump into the lake.”
The two events in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City both drew initial suspicion from authorities. Tran says this is partly because gay rights events were unknown to security authorities and so police met him to ask what exactly would take place.
“After all, they allowed me to do it but they warned me to do it quickly and not show off the big rainbow flag because they don’t know what the flag meant, if it is the flag of another country or an organization that’s against the government,” adds Tran.
The two events came just a week after Justice Minister Ha Cung Cuong said on the government website that it was time to consider a change in the law recognizing same-sex marriage.
The ministry is drafting a proposed revision to the marriage law, to improve the rights of same-sex couples regarding assets and adoption.
The National Assembly will discuss the draft revision in May 2013.
Although legalizing same-sex marriage is not likely to be passed anytime soon, activists are confident giving same-sex couples rights under the law will help people recognize the normality of homosexuality and encourage more people to come out.