By LIEN HOANG
HO CHI MINH CITY — In the video, a transgender Vietnamese in a stringy, low-cut top entertains a crowd by balancing three fiery batons in her hands and on her head. A while later, other transgenders talk about the daily challenges of being at odds with your sex of birth, ranging from which restroom to use to bickering with the police over the gender stipulated on your official I.D.
In November, “Vui Song Moi Ngay” (“The Joy of Living Every Day”) became the first mainstream TV program to run a special about transgenders in Vietnam. The episode marks an encouraging if humble milestone for the transgender cause — and more broadly for human rights in Vietnam, which is better known for cracking down on bloggers, demonstrators and believers of minority faiths.
Transgenders tend to have a harder time than homosexuals because they’re more conspicuous. Harassment pushes them to drop out of school; bigotry in the workplace leads them to take menial entertainment gigs. Some make use of their perceived strangeness by performing at funerals, which in Vietnam are celebrations of life rather than occasions to mourn death.
The nation’s transgenders are clamoring for legislation that would recognize their right to undergo sex-change operations in Vietnam and to select the gender listed on their I.D.s. Current law doesn’t allow for the surgery, except for people who are intersex, or born with characteristics of both genders. And without proper papers, transgenders have trouble boarding planes, buying property and opening bank accounts.
Support for change is growing. Participants at Vietnam’s first transgender workshop in August included officials from various ministries and the Office of Government, the state’s executive arm. One Justice Ministry representative invited attendees to call him if they had trouble with official paperwork. In November, after a fact-finding mission to Ho Chi Minh City, the ministry submitted a report to the government in Hanoi stating that existing laws were preventing transgenders from building happy families.
This increasing open-mindedness is part of the government’s bid to burnish, at a low cost, its international reputation on human rights. Vietnam is applying for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, even as watchdogs criticize it for its heavy-handed monitoring of Internet activity. Expanding religious rights or freedom of expression risks empowering the political opposition; doing more for the L.G.B.T. community does not. The U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has made clear that progress against homophobia would be looked upon favorably.
When it comes to L.G.B.T. rights, Vietnam already is unique in Asia. Last year, the government elicited global surprise and rare applause when it floated the prospect of legalizing gay marriage; it is poised to become the first country in the region to do so next year. Even gay-friendly Thailand, where Vietnamese transgenders typically go for sex-reassignment surgery, has yet to approve such unions.
Vietnam might have an authoritarian bent like Malaysia and Singapore, but it does not criminalize sodomy. Indonesia and the Philippines are the only nations in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to count more Catholics, but religious resistance to L.G.B.T. rights is much greater in those countries: The church has little influence in communist Vietnam.
This is one reason that granting wider freedoms to transgenders would come at little domestic cost to the Vietnamese government: Few important constituencies much care. Another reason is that in this one-party state, politicians seeking office don’t have to stake out positions on social issues. If there’s any place in the world where the L.G.B.T. movement is apolitical, Vietnam is it.
It doesn’t hurt that the population is young — more than half of the country is under 30 — and so less likely than older generations to consider transgenders socially deviant. Young Vietnamese easily name off the country’s celebrity transgenders, from Cindy Thai Tai to Huong Giang, a finalist in last year’s Vietnam Idol.
Now it’s rejection by older Vietnamese, which is linked to fears of stigma in local communities, that poses the greatest obstacle for transgenders in Vietnam.
Truong Thi Mai, a 20-year-old with bleached hair, fake eyelashes and hot-pink nail polish, works at Thuy Linh, a seafood restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. The owner, a woman who once shunned transgenders but now offers them jobs, has famously turned the place into a haven for transgender waitresses.
Mai and her colleagues spend their after-hours upstairs, where they live, sleep and commiserate together. But when Mai visits her family, the lashes and polish come off. “When I go to my hometown, I have to pretend to be a man because they don’t want the neighbors to know,” she said.
It’ll take time for the older generations to come around to transgender rights — longer, it would seem, than for the government.
Dozens of cyclists decorated with balloons and rainbow flags streamed through the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi on Sunday for the first gay pride parade in the nation’s history.
Organised by the city’s small but growing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, the event went ahead peacefully with no attempt by police to stop the colourful convoy of about 100 activists, despite their lack of official permits.
The parade follows recent gay pride celebrations in Myanmar and Laos, reflecting signs of liberalising social attitudes in parts of Southeast Asia.
Homosexuality remains largely taboo in Vietnam, where Confucian social mores with their emphasis on tradition and family still dominate society.
Homosexuals are routinely portrayed in the media as comical figures, or as people suffering from a condition that can be treated.
In a surprise move late last month, Justice Minister Ha Hung Cuong said that it might be time to consider a change in the law to recognise same-sex marriage.
Vietnam currently forbids same-sex unions. Were it to legalise the practice, it would become the first Asian country to do so.
Activists said that they had modified the parade route after coming under pressure from police to avoid sensitive areas of the capital where anti-China demonstrations were taking place.
“We don’t have permission for this and even if we had asked for official permission it would not have been possible,” said Van Anh, to the AFP news agency.
“But we have a lot of support from Vietnamese society. Many people told me they want to attend the parade,” she added.
A CH∆OS Production (2011)
Vietnamese Title: ‘Đừng ẩn mình dù bạn là ai’
A short film about the battle within a guy who acknowledges that he is homosexual. His hesitation to come out is caused by the harsh judgments of the society and unfortunately, of his Mother also.
Our intension is to demonstrate the emotional aspects of being gay and we wish to somehow change the perceptions of the society about homosexual people.
Original Concept: Huy Vũ
Director: Huy Vũ
Script: Thùy Uyên
Art Director: Huy Vũ & Thùy Uyên
Camera: Huy Vũ & Bá Hỷ
Set Manager: Quỳnh Anh, Quỳnh Mai & Trúc Diễm
Special FX: Huy Vũ
Sound: Huy Vũ & Thùy Uyên
Editor: Huy Vũ
Coming out party on Valentine’s Day will increase Vietnamese society’s tolerance, homosexuals hope
Gays and transgenders at a beauty contest in Ho Chi Minh City. The gay community is looking for more tolerance.
Nguyen Van Trung, 35, is as excited as a teenager going to his or her first party.
But the excitement is tinged with some nervous bravado, because Trung’s coming out party seeks to increase public tolerance toward the gay community in Vietnam.
A group of 100 gay activists is planning to raise awareness and visibility by wearing pink T-shirts proclaiming, “I am gay.” They will walk together on the sidewalks in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, probably on the upcoming Valentine’s Day, Trung said.
“This will be the first time such an activity has been organized by the gay community in Vietnam,” said Trung, member of a HCMC voluntary group that seeks to advise men who have sex with men (MSM) on safe sex and HIV-related knowledge.
“I only hope that by doing so, the public will be more tolerant of people like us since we do no harm to the society.”
Trung said the fact that society has become more open to gay people has inspired him and his peers to come out. They had originally planned to take to the streets last Tuesday to mark World AIDS Day (December 1), but canceled it at the last minute as the shirts were not printed on schedule.
Very few gay people publicly come out in Vietnam. Homosexuality is still a taboo subject in the traditionally patriarchal society long ruled by Confucian social mores and Buddhist beliefs.
“Most gay people are very afraid to say that they are gay. [But] most of them find out when they eventually do reveal it, it is more easily accepted than they thought it would be,” said Donn Colby, medical director of the Harvard Medical School’s AIDS Initiative in Vietnam.
“That’s a very positive sign,” said Khuat Thu Hong, co-director of the Hanoi-based Institute for Social Development Studies, a local non-governmental organization. “I hope this momentum continues so gay people in Vietnam enjoy the same rights as everyone else.”
Vietnam’s HIV epidemic is concentrated among people who inject drugs, sex workers and men who have sex with men. Across Vietnam, an estimated 243,000 people were living with the virus at the end of 2009.
But Colby acknowledged that there was still discrimination against MSM in Vietnam, particularly in rural areas, and most MSM still hide the fact, leaving them very vulnerable to contracting the HIV virus.
“If you look at how much money had been spent by the Vietnamese government and international donors on HIV prevention, the amount that goes to MSM is much less than that given to other high-risk groups. When it comes to HIV prevention, MSM get fewer resources.”
“They should increase the amount of research that is given to prevention for MSM,” Colby said.
Trung said gay men in rural Vietnam still suffer social stigma and discrimination.
“They are sneered at or have to bear worse insults wherever they go. “We are also human. We also have our own dreams.
“Our happiness is in being able to live our real lives. I hope that in the near future, gay people like me will have a space where we can relax without worrying about being arrested or chased away.”
|A study released last year by Hanoi’s STDs/HIV/AIDS Prevention Center confirmed the stigma against gays and listed the consequences for men who have sex with men (MSM) in Vietnam.
The study, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, was conducted in six cities/provinces including Hanoi and Thai Nguyen in the north, Da Nang and Nha Trang in the central region, and Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho in the south. The study team conducted structured interviews, using questionnaires with 813 MSM, 900 community members and family members of MSM, 600 key officials/staff from departments/organizations, 45 focus group discussions, and 196 in-depth interviews with the above-mentioned respondents.
Generally, local people and officials considered MSM “unnatural” (68 percent) and almost half saw it as an “illness” (48 percent). Around 36 percent of respondents said that MSM was a “social evil” that should be eliminated, while 27 percent considered it a result of debauchery.
“Stigma towards people living with HIV is similar to that faced by men who have sex with men and transgender people because it is often based on moral judgments,” said Khuat Thu Hong, co-director of the Hanoi-based Institute for Social Development Studies, a local nongovernmental organization. “Men who have sex with men and transgenders living with HIV face double stigma.”
Reported by An Dien