Nguyen Tan Phat said he was happy to hear about the repeal of Vietnam's gay marriage ban, but is still unsure about what rights he has. (Sith Zam/VOA)
Nguyen Tan Phat said he was happy to hear about the repeal of Vietnam's gay marriage ban, but is still unsure about what rights he has. (Sith Zam/VOA)

In the past few months, Tang Ai Linh has noticed something new whenever she is logged on to Facebook: a lot more people have been posting photos and stories from gay weddings.

Vietnam has not legalized same-sex marriage, but a new law effectively decriminalizes it, putting Vietnam at the vanguard of gay rights in Southeast Asia. Many in the LGBT community interpret this as tacit permission for, at least, the ceremonial aspects of matrimony. Gay couples have responded by resuming nuptials, which had been on hiatus after repeated headlines about local officials breaking up gay weddings.

The 2000 Law on Marriage and Family explicitly banned marriage between people of the same gender. Other regulations, now repealed, allowed for fines of up to 500,000 dong ($24). Local authorities used these rules to disband wedding parties, sometimes for bribes, sometimes out of homophobia.

“But for some officials, it is not about the money,” said Linh, who has been with her wife for 14 years. “They do it just because they want to cause trouble for us.”

The updated marriage law, which took effect January 1, deletes the ban but says, “The State does not recognize marriage between people of the same sex.”

Confusion sets in

The ambiguity has caused some confusion among gay Vietnamese.

Nguyen Tan Phat is seen with his partner Le Hoang
Nguyen Tan Phat is seen with his partner Le Hoang Minh (Photo - Sith Zam for VOA)

“I don’t understand,” said Nguyen Tan Phat, who runs a photography and design company with his boyfriend. “The government doesn’t ban, but doesn’t recognize gay marriage, so what does that mean we can do? It’s really unclear.”

The revisions don’t confer new legal rights on gay people, but are seen as a mostly symbolic indicator of the direction Vietnam is heading. In contrast to conservative policies in nearby Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, leaders in Hanoi have surprised the world with their rapid embrace of the gay movement. Pride rallies have gone ahead with official sanction, while gay marriage has been actively debated among legislators.

Tran Khac Tung, director of the gay rights group ICS, said the government is even inviting gay rights organizations like his to law-drafting sessions, legitimizing them as an interest group during the policymaking process.

Observers say the reasons for this sea change - and for hopes that Vietnam will be the first country in Asia to legalize gay marriage - are self-reinforcing. To begin with, religious lobbies are frequently the most vocal opponents of gay marriage in many countries. But in Communist Vietnam, religious lobbies are largely blunted.

The second factor, according to advocates, is that unlike other human rights, authorities do not see same-sex marriage as a threat to their hold on power.

Lobbying for change

Because authorities mostly didn’t interfere with the LGBT community, advocates saw an opening. Tung said that just about every official he has spent time with has come around to supporting their cause.

Groups like ICS have also made strides in media coverage of and attitudes toward gay people; their success has attracted foreign and other funding, which has bolstered the lobbying efforts at the national level.

FILE - Newly married same-sex couple Tran Ngoc Die
FILE - Newly married same-sex couple Tran Ngoc Diem Hang (R) and Le Thuy Linh (2nd R) share a moment during their public wedding as part of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) event on a street in Hanoi, October 27, 2013.

The lifting of the gay marriage ban is just the latest sign of this success.

“I don’t think there’s so much that’s changed, except that it sends a message to the public of the position of the government, that it’s moving to more acceptance and tolerance of the LGBT community,” Tung said.

He said the growing support from parents, the media, and the public overall “creates pressure” for the government to act.

“The same sex issue has been raised before,” Tung said, “but nothing happened because there was no backup from society.”

That’s no longer the case . Not unlike the United States, Vietnam appears to be on a path toward allowing same-sex marriage.

The new law this month marked just a small step down that path, but Phat said he was happy when he heard about it on Facebook.

“This is good news for the community,” Phat said. “I’m seeing that people are more open, more relaxed. In the past, coming out to family was really hard. But now it’s like a revolution, things are changing so fast.”