Every year, the large Vietnamese-American community in the Little Saigon area of Orange County, California, eagerly anticipates the Tet parade, both to ring in the lunar new year and to affirm their cultural heritage.
This year, however, a row over the participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] activists in the February 10 parade has stirred controversy in the community.
In years past, LGBT activists have participated in what was a city-sponsored event, but this year, sponsorship changed to private hands, and the activists were asked to stay away.
Minh Tran, a member of the Vietnamese LGBT Coalition, said that in the past, the crowds have been receptive to the gay marchers, even applauding them, although he did add that usually one or two people out of the many thousands of spectators would yell obscenities.
Tran says that while Little Saigon is a conservative community known for staunch anti-communism and adherence to Catholicism, most parade spectators have shown support for LGBT marchers in the past.
Tran said this year’s controversy can trace its roots back to 2010, when the Vietnamese Interfaith Council, a religious group, protested the participation of LGBT groups to the city of Westminster, which then funded the parade.
According to Natalie Newton, an LGBT organizer, the council presented the city with a list of groups they said would boycott the parade if the activists were allowed to participate. The city told the council they could not ban a group from participating and, according to Newton, none of the groups--except the leaders of the Interfaith Council--ended up boycotting the parade.
This year, the city was strapped for money and handed the parade over to the community. A group of organizers came forward and offered to pay for the parade. Many of them are members of the Interfaith Council, according to Tran.
The rhetoric over the exclusion of LGBT activists has only escalated as the parade approaches, with activists accusing parade organizers of smearing them in the media.
“I feel like some of the escalation of the animosity in the media on their side has been damaging to themselves,” said Newton, adding that she and her fellow activists had been accused of being communists and “selfish young people.”
Parade organizers did offer a compromise, Tran said.
“They suggested we march a half an hour before or after their parade,” he said. “It was basically having our own parade, but they said we could use their sound system. We were pissed.”
Not satisfied, the activists launched a public awareness campaign and even went to court to try to force organizers to let them in. The judge ruled against them.
Still, the LGBT activists may have achieved a moral victory.
“If we were running the show, we wouldn’t exclude the Interfaith Council,” said Newton. “This doesn’t reflect the community.”
She may be right, as some groups have already said they will not participate if the LGBT activists are kept away. The Garden Grove Unified School District, which provides buses for the event, said it will not participate, and local politicians are wondering if they want to be part of an event that could be seen as exclusionary.
According to the Vietnamese-language website Nguoi-Viet, a local congresswoman said she will not attend and hoped the parties would resolve the dispute so that everyone could participate.
Other Asian-American civil rights groups, local and national, have written letters in support of allowing the activists to participate.
Furthermore, many of the LGBT activists have been invited to participate by other groups already approved to march in the parade.
Ian Van Cong, a member of the LGBT group, told the Orange County Register, "Even if we didn't win in court, we won with the community."
Neil Xuan Nghia Nguyen, the president of the group organizing the parade did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment.
Long Le, a co-founder of the Department of Vietnamese studies at the University of Houston said he was surprised to hear of the controversy in Orange County. Houston is also home to a large number of Vietnamese-Americans, and while he said the Vietnamese-American community in general is conservative on social issues, they tend to be less so the longer they are in the United States.
“I can’t see how the community at large would have a problem,” he said. “It may be more an issue with the group that’s running the parade.”