Walls are coming down for the gay community, but lesbians still face problems ranging from sexism to motherhood. By Lien Hoang. Photo by Fred Wissink.

With Vietnam recently removing fines for gay marriage, there seems to be constant good news on the LGBT front. In truth, however, the benefits of this progress have not been felt equally by all. Even as Vietnam surprises the world and advances gay rights, one group is sometimes overlooked: lesbians.

Gay women continue to deal with challenges that rarely are mentioned in all the breathless media coverage of Vietnam’s burgeoning gay movement. Some of the challenges are particular to the country, while others are universal.

Sexism, for instance, knows no borders. Most agree that, despite all the strides of women’s liberation, a gender gap remains in nearly every country. But it’s easy to forget that, just as sexism hurts straight women, it also makes life harder for gay women, even within the LGBT community.

“The LGBT framework is a fantasy of gender equality that doesn’t exist,” said Natalie Newton, who wrote her PhD thesis at the University of California, Irvine about Vietnamese lesbians.

It sounds obvious that women endure discrimination whether they’re gay or straight. But people initially find this surprising because they expect straight women to show solidarity with gay women, or for gay men to show solidarity with gay women.

“A feminist agenda needs to be a part of the LGBT conversation,” Newton said in a phone interview.

As a headline in the Guardian proclaimed in July: “Lesbophobia is homophobia with a side-order of sexism.”

In Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, Suzanne Pharr wrote that “lesbians suffer the most damage because we are the double victims of sexism/homophobia”.

Pharr discussed the campaigns for women’s rights in the United States, which many now criticise because they excluded lesbians at first (as well as women of colour). Specifically, “lesbians experienced profound despair and rage when we learned that even in this movement to free women there was not a safe place for us,” Pharr wrote.

Beyond those issues, Vietnamese lesbians live in a nation of acutely conservative family values. Though things are changing, women traditionally rear children while men bring in most if not all of the household income.

“[Gay] women are pressured to make a living without a husband,” said Tran Thanh Ly, who started a popular lesbian forum, Ban Gai Viet Nam, named after the word for “girlfriend”.

That’s the first problem that differs between gay men and gay women, Ly said. The second is that lesbians still have a maternal instinct and want children, but the law doesn’t accommodate artificial insemination or adoption by gay couples.

Increasingly influential organisations like CSAGA and ICS could someday advocate for these rights, as they’ve been doing for same-sex marriage. Ironically, however, some of the work of non-governmental organisations has put lesbians at a disadvantage.

Newton wrote in her doctoral thesis that, when it comes to LGBT matters, foreign development aid for Vietnam has centred on gay men, largely through HIV reduction efforts.

“From the start there’s already a power imbalance,” Newton said in the interview. Such development work neglects lesbians, as does aid that seeks to fight domestic violence.

With the support of NGOs, gay men build up networks that are useful beyond reducing HIV rates. They become more represented in groups like ICS as they start to advocate other causes, and they have formal access to foreign and civil society organisations.

Lesbians have a weaker hand in this regard. Newton said that some lesbians have been rejected when they approached organisations for project funding because they didn’t have the experience that comes with already being embedded in the system.

“Again and again we see the institutional barriers,” she said.

Instead of using aid from foreign governments and non-profits, lesbian groups adopt a grassroots modus operandi. They collect money on their own and apply it to things like a football tournament (to bring lesbians together), or charity trips to the countryside to donate books and medicine (to form ties with other communities). They also create their own support networks, such as a now-closed cafe in Ho Chi Minh City that was just for lesbians, or social bonding activities from yoga to karaoke to movie nights.

The status of women here is not always what’s expected. While media in other cultures promote lesbian fantasies even among straight men, Vietnamese sometimes accuse women of being “trendy les” — meaning they’re just pretending to like other women to seem cool.

Women around the world tend to be more progressive than men, and that includes accepting homosexuality. Counterintuitively, then, one of the biggest hindrances to same-sex rights here is a Vietnamese women’s advocacy group that promotes family values. Its members generally assail gay marriage as contributing to the deterioration of traditional family values. Ironically, it could be hurting the very women it nominally represents. Some say that, as an alternative, lesbian groups should be partnering with women’s advocacy groups as one step toward real gender and sexual equality.