Vietnam: Yes On Equality, No On Relationships

June brought two major decisions on LGBT rights on the part of Vietnam. The legal recognition of same-sex relationships was dropped from reforms of the law on marriage and families. But almost on the same day, Vietnam pledged to move towards a law against discrimination that would ensure equality for individuals on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

In 2012 the Justice Ministry in Vietnam began the process of revising the law on marriage and family. Eight different issues were identified as in need of re-examination, including both heterosexual and same-sex cohabitation. The justice ministry said that there needed to be legal rules on property and custody of children in these unmarried situations. What startled the world was a written statement from the Justice Ministry that same-sex marriage was “inevitable” according to human rights principles. But even that dramatic statement said it was too early for Vietnam to make such a bold move.

A lengthy process of public consultations and drafting began, and predictions of when reform would occur always proved optimistic. In mid-2013 the government produced a draft law. It provided that the provisions on property and children for married couples would apply, as well, to unmarried heterosexual cohabitants. This has often been called in the West ‘ascription’ or the recognition of ‘common law’ or ‘de facto’ marriages. An additional one sentence section said same-same for same-sex. Almost an afterthought. Almost a footnote. Perhaps drafted to be easily droppable.

And on June 19, the provision on recognizing same-sex relationships was dropped. But a previous provision that banned same-sex marriage was modified to simply say that the state gave no recognition to such marriages. This fulfilled a policy shift from two years earlier, when the state stopped prosecuting people who held non-legal marriage events.

On June 20, a representative of the Vietnamese NGO iSee, spoke in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Council (a statement authorized by the International Lesbian and Gay Association, which is accredited at the UN). He noted the National Assembly decision, but praised Vietnam for saying in Geneva that it accepted the recommendation of Chile (in the Universal Periodic Review process) that Vietnam enact a law “that guarantees the equality of all citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Vietnam has been dogged by challenges to its human rights record, particularly from the US, but other states as well. Many assume that its openness to discuss the recognition of same-sex relationships, was, in part at least, a response to those criticisms. The initiative of the executive branch failed in the legislature, which proved to be not as tame as outsiders thought. But a new initiative has opened. “Equality” may be easier to sell than family status.

by Douglas Sanders