HANOI - When Vietnam’s National Assembly passed revisions to the Marriage and Family Law in June, the country's gay and transgender rights activists were left disappointed.
But despite the hurdle, they are continuing to make their case.
In 2012, the Justice Ministry suggested including same-sex couples in its overhaul of the Marriage and Family Law. Many hoped this could clear the way for Vietnam to become a leader for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in the region. Some speculated that Vietnam would become the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize same-sex weddings.
But as the debate progressed, these hopes gradually eroded.
When the law was finally passed last month, it removed an article that defined legal rights for cohabiting same-sex couples.
Lê Quang Bình, director of the Institute for Studies of Society, Economics and Environment (iSEE), a Vietnamese nonprofit organization that focuses on minority rights, called that a big disappointment.
“Vietnam fails to really protect rights to live with the one you love for LGBT in Vietnam," said Binh. "I think Vietnam could have done more than change the word from ‘ban’ to ‘not recognize’ same-sex marriage.”
Many lawmakers also said they believed same-sex relationships should be regulated in the civil code rather than the Marriage and Family Law, and iSEE is now working with the Ministry of Justice to include the rights of transgender people to change their sex and include civil unions.
“For the civil code, it’s very much about legal consequence of same-sex couples, but in the law on marriage and family, it’s about love, relationships, [and] commitment," Binh said. "It’s more than just like the civil construct. It’s quite different in terms of legal meaning.”
Attitudes toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community have shifted greatly over the last few years in Vietnam, a country where traditions of patriarchal family values prevail. Last year, the UN congratulated the country on “great progress made” toward eliminating the stigma and discrimination for homosexuals.
Still, an iSEE poll released earlier this year found that a majority of respondents do not support gay marriage.
The last two years have seen the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community become more confident and increasingly visible, with high profile activities across the country, from flash mob performances to music and photography shows.
Nguyen Thanh Tam, part of the team behind Viet Pride, the country’s first gay pride parade, which was held in Hanoi in 2012, said everyone should be entitled to the right to marry no matter what their sexual orientation and gender identity.
“But at the same time it is not the only important type of equality we want to achieve," she said. "We also want to have the attitude that is accepting towards sexual diversity and all other differences that people have."
The Women’s Union and members of the National Assembly say Vietnamese society is not ready for the changes advocated by the rights activists. But some question whether the law should follow public opinion or lead it.
“I think that in countries like America, the laws inform the attitude and if you change the law then everything will fall into place," Tam said. "But I don’t think that the context in Vietnam follows that direction. We should be raising awareness and changing the public attitude at the same time as changing the law and the two of them will support each other.”
Steps forward, steps back
Society is ready for such a change, said Pauline Oosterhoff, co-author of the recent study, ‘Negotiating Public and Legal Spaces: The Emergence of an LGBT Movement in Vietnam,’ which was conducted by the Institute of Development Studies, a UK-based global research and charity organization.
“You can see on the whole mobilization ... on the street people did get a lot of support. But I think the Women’s Union, for example, or some parts of the Women’s Union or some parts of the People’s Committee are not ready,” she said.
But, she added, this setback is also just one part of broader restrictions on civil society in general.
“I also think there is a general tightening up in Vietnam at the moment because of all the internal politics," said Oosterhoff. "I feel there’s broader restrictions for civil society groups at the moment. So it might also have been the wrong timing.”
She described the progress of civil society like the popular dance known as the cha cha cha — one step forward, a step to the left, the right, then backward and again forward.
In addition to the civil code, Binh said iSEE is working on a law on equality and anti-discrimination, which Vietnam has committed to passing in the next four years.
Meanwhile, activists are preparing for the third Viet Pride in August, which is expected to be the biggest yet.