Earlier this month the news that Vietnam might become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage made headlines around the world. The news appeared to come out of nowhere, as no-one expected the socially conservative one-party state to be so progressive.
In an interview with Gay Star News Le Quang Binh, the director of the first LGBT rights organization in Vietnam, reveals the five year story behind this month’s headlines.
The story starts in 2007 when iSEE (Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment) started working on promoting minority rights (ethnic and sexual) in Vietnam. Their first project was a study on the portrayal of gay men and lesbians in the media. They studied 500 articles about LGBT issues and found negative and ignorant descriptions of gay people in almost all of them.
‘The gay and lesbian community said "mass media is our number one enemy”’, says Le on the phone from his office in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). ‘Because the media was so negative - articles said homosexuality is a disease, it's a social evil, gay men are very very feminine, lesbians are very very butch. They were portraying wrong knowledge to society, because if the newspapers talk badly about gay and lesbians, then society will think badly about gay and lesbians.’
After the study iSEE arranged a workshop for all the journalists who had written these stories, their editors, professors of journalism and government officials. Most of them came. At the workshop, iSEE taught them about sexual orientation and gender identity and the international trend to promote the rights of LGBT people.
‘And then we brought gay and lesbians to the training, because the journalists had never met a gay or lesbian who had told them that they were gay or lesbian!’ says Le. ‘That changed the perception of journalists about the LGBT community and many formed personal relationships with the gays and lesbians they met.’
By 2009, after more public education workshops, iSEE organized a photography exhibition of images taken by gay people. The media covered it extensively, and positively.
‘It was so crowded! There were something like 10,000 visitors, mostly students and young people in HCMC,’ says Le. ‘Then we took the exhibition to a university campus in Hanoi and it was sold out for the whole month.’
Since then iSEE has staged contemporary plays and art exhibitions about LGBT issues, and developed strong relationships with journalists. The media coverage is totally different from five years ago.
‘We call it a U-turn,’ says Le. ‘It’s completely changed. Especially in the mainstream media. In fact in 2011 a talk show about gay and lesbian issues won the golden prize in the national television awards.’
Le says it was this increased visibility of LGBT people in the mass media - for example the wedding reception of a gay couple in May was covered widely and positively - that led the government to look into same-sex relationships.
‘With the visibility of the LGBT community in Vietnam increasing, people think that wow - LGBT people exist!’ says Le, adding that the second reason the government are looking into same-sex relationships now is the reality of legal issues that face the many gay couples who live together in Vietnam.
‘There have been some cases, for example, of two men living together,’ says Le. ‘They own property together and then they break-up and go to court about ownership of the house. The court doesn't know how to deal with it because legally they are just friends, not a couple.’
‘The State should have legal mechanisms to protect the legitimate rights such as legal personality, property ownership or children (if any) of same sex couple living together.’
Does Le think gay marriage will come to Vietnam when the National Assembly meet to discuss revising marriage and family law next year?
‘I am very positive about the developments in general because the government is seriously considering same-sex relationships,’ Le says, adding that he believes the article prohibiting same-sex marriage in the current wording of the marriage and family law may well be dropped, but he’s not convinced the law will change to allow gay marriage.
‘They might develop a decree about the legal consequence of same-sex relationships, but the law won't mention same-sex marriage,’ Le says, laying down a challenge for LGBT rights campions in Vietnam. ‘It depends very much on the lobbying and advocacy.’
Although some government officials, women’s union officials and university professors have said to Le informally that they are unsure Vietnam is ready for same-sex marriage, citing the threat to ‘traditional family values’, no one has spoken out publicly against gay marriage.
Vietnam is mainly Buddhist, so it doesn’t face the opposition to gay rights from religious leaders like those in Islamic Malaysia and Indonesia, or from the Christian right in the US.
Whether Vietnam legalizes same-sex marriage or not, before gearing up for battle, iSEE should be congratulated for gaining so much ground. A few years ago homosexuality was widely thought of as a social evil up in Vietnam, now the government has recognized the rights of gay couples to exist and they have shown they are willing to learn more.
‘When they consult on same-sex relationships it means they recognise gay and lesbians. That's the first step,’ says Le.