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Gay movie opening minds as well as eyes in Vietnam?

Lost In Paradise hopes to end homophobia in conservative Vietnam. But is gay equality any closer?
Lost In Paradise hopes to break down prejudices about gays in Vietnam

Thailand may have one of the hottest gay scenes in Asia, but in neighboring countries such as Vietnam, where many still view homosexuality as either an illness or a source of ridicule, the battle to win hearts and minds has been a slow one.

However, with the country’s economy flourishing and city dwellers becoming more prosperous, attitudes are beginning to shift and a Vietnamese movie featuring racy gay love scenes is helping to dispel prejudice.

Homosexuality remains largely taboo in communist Vietnam, where Confucian social mores, with their emphasis on tradition and family, still dominate.

But cinemagoers are flocking to see the eye-opening Lost In Paradise, which tells the story of a doomed love affair between a gay prostitute and a book seller.

Quynh Bang, from Saigon, says attitudes to homosexuality are softening and the changes are coming from the younger generation.

The 28 year old mother said: ‘The younger generation have a broader outlook already.

‘Gay couples can live together openly but they cannot show public displays of affection – something which is frowned upon in Vietnamese society even for straight couples.’

Lost in Paradise has, she adds, generated sympathy from viewers her age.

But her elders are still dragging their feet.

Ho Bang, a gay Vietnamese national who now lives in London, says it’s difficult for such a conservative society to accept the possibility of a fulfilling same-sex partnership.

‘Being gay clashes with a lot of family values,’ the 35-year-old said.

‘If you’re gay, you can’t have children and a childless couple is viewed as unfortunate.’

The two most important things in Vietnamese society, he explains, are money and family.

And if you can’t have the latter, many people believe a relationship must be based on financial stability for it to work.

‘The view is that there are two types of gay man – straight acting and feminine.

‘A straight acting gay man will only be attracted to a heterosexual man. Mainly because dating a feminine gay will draw too much unwanted attention, causing the person to "lose face".

‘What’s in it for the straight man is usually financial rewards. People find it hard to believe that two straight-acting gay men can be together for love alone.

‘In the interests of having a sustainable relationship, they think going with a gay guy is too much trouble and is doomed. Without the financial incentive there is no strong bond between the men.’

He explains the more feminine gay man has the hardest time, especially if he doesn’t have the bank balance to attract a heterosexual partner.

Ho adds that lesbians are often forced into marriage, but transsexuals have a specific role in Vietnamese society.

‘It is similar to Thailand,’ he claims. ‘They work in temples and play a part in ceremonies, such as funerals.’

However, these are stereotypes and myths which he readily busts through his own example, having been in a stable relationship for 10 years now.

And sociologist Le Quang Binh, who has headed several research projects on lesbian and gay issues, said films like Lost in Paradise were paving the way for more openness about homosexuality.

‘The press has become less discriminatory and more objective when covering gay topics,’ he told the AFP press agency.

He noted some local media had even covered what was billed as Vietnam's first lesbian wedding in 2010 and the union of two gay men last June, even though the celebrations were only symbolic, with same-sex marriage not legal in Vietnam.

So while it may be a long road, there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel.

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