HANOI — The Vietnamese government is routinely criticized for its human rights record, but in the past year gay rights activists have made headway for their cause nationwide.
A year after the "Viet Pride" rally that put Vietnamese lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists in an international spotlight, advocates are preparing rainbow flags and matching t-shirts to celebrate Viet Pride 2013, a Sunday celebration featuring film screenings, a flash mobs, fashion shows and, in Hanoi, the all-important bicycle parade.
The last year has been a momentous one for the country’s LGBT rights community. In 2012, proposals to grant same-sex marriage licenses were part of serious discussions over revisions to the country's Marriage and Family Law, and speculation over whether Vietnam's would become the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize same-sex marriage ran high.
"I think from last year the social debate has been widespread to different corners of society including policymakers and lawmakers in the National Assembly," said Le Quang Binh, an analyst with the Hanoi-based Institute for the Studies of Society, Economy and Environment.
While a draft proposal recently approved by the government does not go so far as to legalize same-sex marriage, it does give homosexual couples more rights and, Binh says, represents a step towards same-sex marriage.
"We lift the ban on same-sex marriage but we don’t legalize same-sex marriage .... we recognize that same-sex couples [live] together as a family," she said. "They might have kids, property, other common things, and the government would not intervene into that."
In a society historically based on a family model of heterosexual marriage, familiarizing those with traditional views to new types of family structures requires lots of discussion. Over the last few years, Vietnam's LGBT community has grown more confident in their activism, even conducting training workshops for local journalists to improve their representation of gay people in local media.
In a concerted push against discrimination, gay rights advocates are even altering how Vietnamese language describes gay people by asking employers to use workplace posters that explain what homosexuality is and how common derogatory Vietnamese terms such as "bi-gay" - which suggests being afflicted with a disease - can be offensive.
"The workplace is one of the three channels that can reach people very effectively," said Nguyen Thanh Tam, a Viet Pride 2013 co-organizer who emphasizes the importance of changing people's ideas about what it means to be gay. "People spend a lot of time at home, school and at work. We can do very little things at school right now, but we can do something in the workplace."
For author Nguyen Ngoc Thach, who recently published Vietnam’s first biography of a transgender person, ‘Transgender’, which has nearly sold out, mere professional success is a sign of changing times.
His upcoming book, "Mum, I’m Gay," a worldwide history of LGBT movement, is scheduled to publish in days. Although many Vietnamese groups have been able to publish non-fiction books on gay rights in the past, Thach says his latest work is different.
"The main difference is when some organizations publish the book, the publishing department of Vietnam doesn’t know that. They cannot sell it at the bookstore. But with "Mum, I’m Gay": it’s published by the Publishing Department of Vietnam, so a lot of bookstores will sell it and people who come to the bookstore will see it and buy it."
Although Thach agrees same-sex marriage is important for the LGBT community, he thinks more should be done to help transgender people. In Vietnam hospitals still can only offer sex reassignment surgery to intersex people, and transgender people cannot change their gender on official documents.