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Anthropologist sets out to disprove ‘there are no gays in Vietnam’ creed

Dr Natalie Newton’s online project to highlight the contributions of LGBTs in Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American history
The 2012 edition of the gay pride in Hanoi.
Photo by Thanh Nien News

The war in Vietnam ended in 1975, for some. But for Vietnam’s gay community, it still continues, whether they be at home or abroad.

Though the Southeast Asian country recently had its gay pride and the current government is hearing a debate on whether to legalize same-sex marriages, historically and culturally, homosexuality still remains taboo.

As Dr Natalie Newton, a Vietnamese-American anthropologist whose parents migrated to California, points out, homophobic Vietnamese call homosexuality a Western disease while Westerners called it a Vietnamese disease, specifically during French colonialism of Vietnam.

‘Frenchmen claimed that Vietnamese women were so ugly with blackened teeth from betel nut chewing that this “forced” colonials into engaging in homosexuality under the influence of opium.’

Newton, whose dissertation analyzes how the global LGBT human rights movement interfaces with the local lesbian community in Saigon, has embarked on an online project. The Viet LGBT History Campaign aims to ‘bring visibility to the contributions of LGBTs in Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American history’.

“I started this website to respond to a specific event that excluded Viet LGBTs in California, as well as a bigger picture of homophobia and orientalism around Viet LGBTs,” Newton tells Gay Star News.

The event she is referring to is the Westminster Little Saigon Tet or Lunar New Year parade this summer.

After participating for three years, this time gay groups found themselves barred after the parade was handed over to an alliance to manage.

The new managers included the Vietnamese Interfaith Council in America that had in the past urged a boycott of the parade due to the participation of the gay groups.

While some activists have started an online signature campaign for inclusion, Newton hopes her project will bust the myth that ‘there are no gay people in Vietnamese culture or history’.

Along with her collaborators Hai Vo, who helped with the designing and translations, and Pierre Tran, who also helped with translations, the project will include photographs and images of Vietnamese who are publicly homosexual, transgender, or bisexual and have significantly contributed to Vietnamese history, culture, and community politics.

Newton says they include gay poet Xuan Dieu, transgender singer Cindy Thai Tai, and spiritual leaders of the indigenous Mau religion.

Called ‘dong co’, these shamans are usually males who prefer homosexual relationships and cross-dress as women during spiritual rituals.

‘Everyday Vietnamese American LGBT individuals also contribute to the well-being and strength of the Vietnamese American community through their work in social service nonprofits, mental health care, higher education, medical care, and government services,’ Newton says in the online introduction to the project.

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