On gay marriage, could Vietnam beat U.S.? Column

LGBT freedom no threat to communists.

Hanoi — International human rights advocates rarely give communist authorities here a thumbs up. Vietnamese bloggers, folk singers and journalists are behind bars for deeds and words that in many countries are considered birthright freedoms.

Yet in one respect, Vietnam’s powers-that-be seem open-minded. As the U.S. Supreme Court ponders the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, Vietnam’s National Assembly delegates have agreed to debate the same moral and legal question, raising the possibility that Vietnam could become the first Asian country to sanction such unions.

“I’m optimistic,” said activist Tran Khac Tung during a recent “LGBT” political workshop. The English acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender has become shorthand here for a cause that has swiftly moved from a taboo to a popular topic of political discourse.

No turtle here

In a culture with folklore that exalts the plodding perseverance of the turtle, the advance has been swift . A process that required decades of struggle in the West has been compressed into a few years here. Only recently have Vietnam’s gays and lesbians emerged from their shells in such numbers large enough to be considered a movement. Last summer, Hanoi hosted Vietnam’s first gay pride parade that, unlike other unsanctioned demonstrations here, did not result in any arrests.

Things were much different only six years ago, when Le Quang Binh left the international non-profit Oxfam to founded iSEE, a Hanoi-based research and social justice advocacy group. There was scant data regarding gays and lesbians homosexuality in Vietnam. The LGBT community, such as it was, could most readily be found in a variety of online forums that attracted tens of thousands of participants, the vast majority of whom used pseudonyms.

When Binh reached out to the Ho Chi Minh City-based webmasters of these forums, some suspected he might be a government agent. Achieving a sense of trust, the scattered constituency agreed to collaborate and promote openness and equal rights. At an early strategy session, activists targeted 2020 as the year Vietnam would legalize same-sex marriage. Could they beat their goal by seven years? “Ask the prime minister,” Binh says, laughing.

Gay-bashing parents

The budding movement worked to change the LGBT’s negative image in mass media and promote acceptance on university campuses, leveraging the nation’s youthful demographics. As in the U.S., their efforts spawned supportive groups such as Vietnam PFLAG, meaning “parents and friends of lesbians and gays” — an important development, Binh says, given that gay-bashing in Vietnam typically takes the form of parents beating children. Broadening support led to education workshops with National Assembly delegates and the Ministry of Justice.

Initially, dissident bloggers and others suggested that communist authorities were simply paying lip service to a movement that isn’t really a threat to the government, unlike critics who challenge the Communist Party’s authority. In the human rights realm, it’s an easy box to check off, as one Western diplomat put it.

There is less cynicism now. “I’ve seen there’s change,” Binh says. “They understand that human rights is human rights. It’s the right thing to do.” And as one box gets checked off, they could move on to others. “We always push for more freedom, more justice, more equality,” Binh says. “We test the waters.”

by Scott Duke Harris
Source – USA Today