Peter Cornish touches base with the glittery fabulousness taking Ho Chi Minh City’s drag scene by storm.
Vietnam has a history of men dressing up in women’s clothes, or drag queens as they are sometimes called. These men, or women, have long been a familiar sight at rural Tet festivities, and other local celebrations, playing the fool, the butt of a joke, or calling out the winning numbers for lottery tickets.
This particular role was highlighted in a 2017 film, Lo To, telling a heart-breaking story of life’s struggles in Vietnam’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community, and of a young gay man escaping a life of prejudice to join the bingo callers and be free in his own sexuality. The film explores the life of lottery callers, well known in Vietnam as one of the few jobs an openly gender/queer man could hope to do.
The film has helped build awareness and acceptance of Vietnam’s LGBTQ community and the drag or cross-dressing scene. Already acknowledged as increasingly progressive on LGBTQ issues, Vietnam decriminalised gay partnerships in 2015 and is working towards laws that recognise and allow legal gender changes.
With these updates to the law has come a greater acceptance of those who do not conform to conventional gender distinctions, but identify as neither, or both, or a combination of male and female genders. And accompanying this increase of acceptance comes a new-found confidence to explore openly what it means to be gay in Vietnam, taking pride and being bold.
Queer and Here
Ho Chi Minh City has hosted a celebration of the gay community with VietPride since 2012, allowing the fabulous to proclaim “we are queer and we are here’ with increased confidence. The event has grown into a large annual gathering of the country’s LGBTQ community, attracting tens of thousands of participants nationwide.
Further boosting this confidence is a growing trend for cross-dressing and a drag movement that is making a mark in the country’s larger cities, as well as some of its smaller ones. Though still in its early days compared to neighbouring Thailand, where there is a long and established history of embracing cross-dressing, in Vietnam drag queens are putting on their glad rags and strutting their glittery stuff in ways that many would have not imagined possible just a few years ago.
The booming drag scene in Ho Chi Minh City seems as much about providing a welcoming, non-exclusive environment for all as it is about dressing up in women’s clothes and having a fun night out. It provides spaces of non-judgemental self-expression for the city’s queens and LGBTQ community but also welcomes people of any gender or sexual orientation who want to explore an alternative to gender-rigid stereotypes.
At the forefront of drag in HCMC is Full Disclosure, a new show that’s making a splash on the city’s nightlife scene, not only within the LGBTQ community, but also with those comfortable and supportive of ideas that step outside the norms of the heteronormative culture that most of HCMC’s party scene revolves around.
Popping up at different venues around town, Full Disclosure is “a space that facilitates a spectrum of performances ranging from drag to alternative theatre to musical numbers intertwined with having a good time,” said show founder, Englishman Gavin Sealy.
A newcomer to HCMC after time spent in Bangkok, Gavin saw an opportunity in the under-developed alternative nightlife scene here, taking inspiration from what he had seen and experienced in Thailand.
Joining forces with established local queen, Bang Trinh, who performs the popular Trinh’s Show, he has created a space where LGBTQ people can relax, have a good time, and be comfortable with who they are in an environment where they are free from prejudice and judgement.
“We wanted to be visible,” Gavin said. “It’s a way for the LGBTQ community to connect with the public while being non-political. Others are doing the political thing, but we are more about having fun, having a drink and connecting on a human level.”
Full Disclosure puts on events with performances, games, themes and plenty of interaction between performers and audience. Since starting in 2017, it has become one of the most popular nights in the city, regularly attracting more than 400 guests, not only from the drag and LGBTQ community but from a growing number of people who identify as straight.
“I wanted to help people understand that drag is an art form, not just about LGBTQ,” said Trinh, who heads Team Bang Trinh, one of the leading drag performance groups in the country. With Gavin, she saw the chance to strengthen her message and increase the size of her group, sharing experiences with foreigners and locals.
Trinh’s own show mixes traditional Vietnamese art and culture with foreign musical and artistic influences. Each show is themed and includes music, dancing and acting. She also hosts a talk show discussing topics relevant to the LGBTQ community and helping to develop life outlooks for young gay people. “Team Bang Trinh works with other drag teams to bring people together under a common banner and to encourage open minded thinking,” she said.
A recent addition to Full Disclosure’s family of fabulousness is Ricardo Glencasa who hosts their regular party night, Gender Funk. Joining the Full Disclosure family just six months ago, Ricardo brings a full-on party vibe to their events with a night of glitter-inspired disco, soul and funk.
“For me the night is like breathing out and exhaling,” he said. “As a queer person we often suppress part of our personality that’s not always accepted by society. Gender Funk is a place where we can breathe out and not hold anything in, just relax and let go.” Like the Full Disclosure shows, Gender Funk is attracting impressive numbers of locals and foreigners who want to party without inhibitions or worrying about a restrictive vibe.
Working with those in the LGBTQ and drag community who have paved the way, Full Disclosure brings a message of acceptance and unity, encouraging freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom to be who you are among people who accept you for that. And the party fabulous are loving it, glitter and all.