At the intersection of mainstream & diversity, Vietnam is slowly breaking down the barriers for same-sex couples
words & photos: MATTHEW COWAN
“You are who you are”, says Son, a Graphic Designer, who identifies himself as Vietnamese and American and is married to his Vietnamese partner Adrian, a fashion designer.
“Sexuality is something you’re born with”, Son explains, “it’s not like you make a decision on it, so it’s important to understand that you don’t let it control you.”
Son and Adrian represent a growing number of young Vietnamese couples publicly supporting the push for LGBTQ rights in Vietnam. The couple were part of a panel discussion at the Viet Pride 2016 Conference held in HCMC on August 27 sharing experiences of life in Vietnam as gay married couples before an audience of around 100 attendees.
Son and Adrian held their wedding ceremony in Vietnam recently before heading off to the US to have their union officially registered.
“Even in the States, up until the same-sex marriage law was enacted across the country last year, it was completely chaotic. Each state had its own law, so while couples could be registered in one state, their licence still wasn’t valid in others”, says Son.
This is why Son and Adrian say that gay couples wanting to have their marriage recognised in Vietnam need to remain patient for same-sex marriage laws to be enacted.
“For the legal part, I think it’s going to take quite some time. We have to fight for it, but be patient.” — Adrian
In the meantime, their advice for other couples who face discrimination from mainstream society in Vietnam, including family, is to focus first and foremost on making sure their relationship is strong.
“Good advice is to make sure you’re sure it’s the person you really want to get married to”, jokes Adrian, “make sure you’re totally in love!”
Son and Adrian’s story is one of optimism. Day-to-day life for them in Vietnam doesn’t throw up the complexities that one might imagine it would in a country that is deeply grounded in traditional family values where sons are expected to marry women and provide grandchildren for their parents.
“Most of the time in Vietnam we don’t experience any difficulties, like going out, checking into hotels, and so on”, explains Son, “as long as you surround yourself with positive people who actually support you. Some people are going to say really bad things about you, but that’s okay, that’s life, we don’t have to be on-point all the time and once you understand that and eliminate all the negativity around you, everything else just comes pretty easily.”
Yet, Son is less enthusiastic when the topic turns to the difficulties gay married couples face in being recognised by the law in Vietnam.
“It’s when you put yourself in critical situations that require some laws to solve an issue – that’s when it becomes problematic!” — Son
Indeed, the day-long conference held at the Eden Star Hotel in District 1 illuminated that issue among many others as the LGBTQ community strives to be fairly recognised by mainstream society.
One critical example is the impact that a same-sex marriage law would have on gay couples in Vietnam. Such a law would not only empower them when taking responsibility for their partners should decisions relating to finances, health and even death arise, it would lessen the burden heaped upon families in cases of emergency; an important consideration given that it’s not uncommon for members of the LGBTQ community in Vietnam to be estranged from their families.
In her presentation to open the conference, Nguyen Ly Hien Nga, founder of Women Who Make A Difference (WWMD), said that Vietnam is living in what she says is a “binary society” where gender is assigned by the society in which an individual lives. In Vietnam, there are two groups that people are typically assigned to – males as breadwinners, and women as homemakers.
“Gender is a social construct which has been mainstreamed inside people’s heads” — Nguyen Ly Hien Nga
However, Nga says that in Vietnam, women increasingly have multiple responsibilities that no longer just confine them to menial duties around the home. She says that while women’s roles in society are gradually changing as society develops and women become better educated and hold down positions of greater responsibility in professional realms, they are still battling against a traditional mindset that perpetuates discrimination.
“There are still traditional expectations and these place a heavy burden on women in Vietnam”, says Nga.
These issues are magnified in rural areas. Vietnam remains a predominantly agrarian society where the majority of the population still lives in farming communities. Communities like these, along with other marginalised groups, are the most vulnerable to gender discrimination argues Nga.
Significantly, schools, especially in Vietnam’s provinces, have been identified as key battlegrounds for the LGBTQ community. Teachers and school administrators, either knowingly or unknowingly, have been accused of reinforcing gender stereotypes through their practices.
“In rural areas, females are discriminated against in terms of schooling which impacts on their social mobility”, Nga says. “Boys tend to get chosen ahead of girls and uniforms readily differentiate girls from boys.”
As a result, gender discrimination is instilled in people from a young age after which it becomes institutionalised as children carry prejudices into adulthood which then manifest in the workplace leading to women being more likely to remain in subordinate positions and passed over for promotion within companies and organisations.
Nevertheless, according to Nga, the publicity generated from events such as Viet Pride helps educate the mainstream public on LGBTQ issues. They are also an opportunity to showcase the varied initiatives the LGBTQ community has initiated like the Rainbow My School program. Initiated by ICS, a Vietnamese organisation founded in 2008 whose mission is to empower the LGBTQ community to help protect their rights, the program’s aim is to create positive perceptions of the LGBTQ community among schoolchildren through workshops that shape positive mindsets at early stages in life.
“We teach the concept of intersectionality. We demonstrate that identity is not single-faceted, but multi-faceted and that there are so many factors that form us beyond just gender, for example, race, education, culture, spirituality, age and so on.”
However, Nga says that all this is pointless without the acknowledgement from people of all walks of life that gender is a social construct. Once this is recognised, the deconstruction of stereotypes can begin by embracing, rather than denying, the diversity we have in our communities. If the notion of a diversity spectrum begins to take root in Vietnam, then this will go a long way towards debunking the misconception that their are two polar opposites to gender with nothing in between.
This is something Nga hopes governments and people in power will get behind and support.
“Political institutions need to be changed in order for things to move forward”, concludes Nga. “Look at who is making decisions in your company, community and so on to ensure everybody is involved.”
And what advice do Son and Adrian have for young LGBTQ Vietnamese in urban and rural areas who might look up to them as role models?
“Just be yourself and live your life, spread love, be around people who actually love you and try to ignore the negativity out there!”, says Adrian.
After pondering what Adrian has said for a moment, Son takes the opportunity to have the final word.
“Your love for another person is just a part of you, it’s not your identity, so if you’re a good citizen and you live your life positively, and you contribute to society, that’s nothing for you to be ashamed of.”