Being homosexual in any country comes with its unique set of challenges, and in Vietnam it’s no different. Ten years ago it was difficult for many gay and lesbian Vietnamese to come out to friends or family, let alone live an open lifestyle. Now, with the help of community organisers, the homosexual community in Saigon is thriving and negative attitudes towards them throughout the country are beginning to change. By Chris Mueller. Photos by Fred Wissink.

When Nguyen Quoc Duy was a child and first realized there was something different about the way he thought, he wasn’t sure where to turn. The then 10-year-old knew he wasn’t interested in girls and no one he knew had ever talked about boys being attracted to other boys. As his strong interest in other male students grew, he became increasingly curious about what was different about him. Twelve years ago, the Internet wasn’t yet widely available in Vietnam, so Duy started to read books about his seemingly odd behaviour.

His research led him to believe what he was feeling was normal for many his age and that he was simply curious about the world. All the books said he would grow out of it in his teenage years, so Duy stopped worrying. But he never grew out of it. When he was 16 he fell in love with a male classmate, then panic started to set in. Twelve years ago in Vietnam homosexuality was an ambiguous concept to most people. The terms gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) were not taught in schools and when it was rarely portrayed in the media, it was always with a negative bias, making any non-heterosexual thoughts taboo in Vietnam. In 2002 homosexuality was declared a ‘social evil’ by the local media.

Luckily Duy’s parents saw the depression creeping up in him and approached him about it. “It was hard to accept that I love a boy and not a girl,” he says. ”But my parents helped me overcome it.”

Now at 22, Duy is one of the increasing number of homosexual Vietnamese who are coming out to their families and living open lifestyles in Vietnam. Compared to 10 years ago, the LGBT community here has made significant progress, says Vu Kieu Chau Loan, the project officer at Information Connecting and Sharing (ICS), an organisation set up in 2008 by the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment. Discrimination and the media’s negative portrayal of homosexuals has been declining, she says.

Ten years ago in Vietnam, most of the attitudes surrounding homosexuals came from their negative portrayal in the media. One of ICS’s biggest triumphs has been changing the way media outlets and TV programs show homosexuals, Huynh Minh Thao, the head of ICS, says.

During the past four years, ICS has held workshops to provide journalists with information about homosexuality and the gay community. As a result, media representation has become more accurate and fair, Thao says.

According to an ICS pamphlet about the portrayal of homosexuals in the local media, many in Vietnam viewed homosexuals as people with an insatiable appetite for sex who would stop at nothing, even going so far as to have sex with children, to satisfy their urges.

Gay-VietnamIn HCM City, that way of thinking has significantly changed. As Duy and his openly gay friend, Tri, sat in a District 1 coffee shop telling me, rather non-discreetly, in both Vietnamese and English what it is like to be gay in Vietnam, we didn’t get so much as a hurried glance from any of the other customers. In Saigon, the most liberal city in Vietnam, the gay and lesbian community is flourishing. More and more gay and lesbian friendly bars, cafes and clubs are popping up and open homosexuals can be seen throughout the city.

Gregg Dickson, a 61-year-old gay Australian man, has lived openly with his Vietnamese partner, Quan, since 2006. Although Dickson, who served in the Australian army in Vietnam from 1970-71, describes Vietnam as, “The most ungay place I’ve come across,” he says he and Quan have never had a problem here.

Dickson remembers that when he was a young man in Australia being openly gay was likely to get you beaten up. But both he and Quan, who says he has always known he was gay, have never felt discriminated against here. They also say they think that being homosexual has become a lot more acceptable, citing the coming out of many well-known Vietnamese actors, singers, businessmen and even a local politician.

“We’re just normal people, living a normal life,” Dickson says.

While there is no question that the tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality has increased, many still face discrimination. Unlike in the west, where much of the discrimination against homosexuals turns violent, all of the gay and lesbian Vietnamese interviewed for this article say they have never had any violence directed towards them for their sexuality, but some said they had heard of it happening.

Vietnam’s conservative culture and emphasis on family has always clashed with those who identify themselves as gay, lesbian or transgender. Boys are expected to grow into men who will marry, work and take care of their family. Girls are brought up to marry a man who can support her and the rest of her family. But when sons or daughters turn out to be gay or lesbian, they are commonly ostracized from the family and sometimes the family becomes shunned by the community. This makes many gays and lesbians wary of coming out. To them, family ties and not disappointing their parents are more important than living openly.

As we sit in the office of ICS in HCM City’s District 4, with rainbow flags adorning the desk and charts of LGBT events and tolerance-building strategies taped to the wall, Nguyen Hai Yen, a lesbian woman who is a project manager for ICS, describes her delicate situation.

She says that although she came out to her friends eight years ago, she still hasn’t come up with a plan to tell her parents, who live in a town about 60km north of Hanoi. She says she worries that coming out could hurt her family’s honour, but she will come out nonetheless, at some point.

Like Duy, Yen, 30, wasn’t really sure what was happening when she started to become attracted towards other woman in university.

“I know now that these special feelings were first love, but I didn’t know how to identify it then,” she says.

She says that in primary school when the time came for the teacher to talk about sex and human reproduction, all of the students were told to read the lessons at home and it wasn’t discussed in class. The textbooks only discussed heterosexual sex, which added to Yen’s confusion later on.

“When I knew I was a lesbian, I was nervous because I thought I was different from other people. I thought I was abnormal,” she says.

But after reading an article about a party organised for lesbians that described women kissing other women, Yen realized there were other people like her. “I recognized that I was not the only one who had these feelings for same-sex friends.”

Yen thought her friends would judge her for her homosexuality, so she began to move away from them and make new friends on the large Internet forums for gay and lesbian people in Vietnam. Years later, however, she came out to her old friends and it didn’t affect their relationship.

Gay in Vietnam Ten years ago it was difficult for many gay and lesbian Vietnamese to come out to friends or family, let alone live an open lifestyle.Yen says that in the last 10 years she has seen a significant transformation in the attitudes both within the LGBT community and society as a whole.

“I’ve seen that there are many more people who dare to come out. There are more and more activities and much more advocacy for LGBT,” she says. “Now when an article says something negative about the LGBT community in Vietnam, the readers are the ones who defend the LGBT [community].”

Marten Ho, a 25-year-old gay Vietnamese man who spent seven years living in Australia, says he too has seen a significant change in how the gay community is viewed.

“Society, or at least in the metropolitan areas, has come to accept it [homosexuality] as a part of life,” he says. “You see much more openness and acceptance towards our community compared to in the past.”

Although attitudes have moved forward in major cities like HCM City and Hanoi, one of the biggest challenges ICS faces is bringing this same change to rural villages, says Thao.

Several people interviewed for this article said in the countryside it is common for families to react harshly when young homosexuals come out to them. In some cases the families will take the son or daughter’s ID card and forbid them from leaving the house.

The local media has also reported cases of suicide in the LGBT community, especially outside of the cities. Loan says ICS is conducting investigations into these cases, which is difficult since many families don’t want to talk about it. ICS is now setting up counseling services for those affected by depression.

Ho says that although progress has been steady much more needs to change. “Many still have to ‘behave’ in front of the crowd and can never truly be themselves,” he says. “One of the biggest challenges with being gay in this culture, a conservative culture which appreciates honour and face value, is humiliation. If the family and the gay man still think it is humiliating to be gay, then it creates a big barrier for them.”

Loan says that while Vietnam does have a conservative culture, it is certainly not impossible to change the way people think about homosexuality. She adds that the problems here are more about ignorance and a lack of information than disdain. “They haven’t heard much about the subject,” she says.

Changing the way homosexuals are portrayed in the media has helped, but Loan says the next critical step needs to be education. ICS organises conferences and events to inform the public about the LGBT community as well as going to schools and universities to teach the younger generation about it. With time, and a lot of work, ICS believes they can show Vietnam that homosexuality has long existed here and has a rightful place in Vietnamese society.

First published in AsiaLIFE HCMC in May 2012