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Vietnam Has Been Praised As A Leader In LGBT Rights. Activists Beg To Differ

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 18/10/2015 Dominique Mosbergen

This is the eighth part of a10-part series on LGBT rights in Southeast Asia, which uncovers the challenges facing the LGBT community in the region and highlights the courageous work of activists there.

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“Vietnam: Flawed on Human Rights, but a Leader in Gay Rights” read a 2013 Atlantic headline. “On Gay Rights, Vietnam is Now More Progressive Than America,” NBC News reported in January. A few days earlier, Bloomberg had declared: “Gay Weddings Planned as Vietnam Marriage Law Is Repealed.”

But the positive headlines only tell part of the story. Activists say while Vietnam is certainly evolving when it comes to LGBT issues, it's not a “leader in gay rights.” LGBT people face widespread abuse and discrimination, particularly in their homes. And though the country -- one of two communist nations in Southeast Asia -- abolished a ban on same-sex marriage earlier this year, gay couples are neither recognized nor protected by law.

Lương Thế Huy, the LGBT rights program manager at Vietnam’s Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), tells The Huffington Post that overcoming rigid family attitudes remains one of the greatest obstacles facing Vietnam's LGBT community.

“Because of traditional norms -- such as keeping the family line intact, saving face, etc. -- there is a lot of stigma and misunderstanding,” he says. “Many people also think that LGBT people are ‘social evils,’ or that it is ‘fashion’ or ‘social trend.’ [As a result] most LGBT people still hide their sexuality from their parents.”  

Activists say Vietnam is certainly evolving when it comes to LGBT issues, but a "leader in gay rights" it is not.

When iSEE surveyed 3,000 gay, lesbian and transgender people in Vietnam in 2008, 20 percent of respondents said they had been beaten by family members.

“My father beat me, saying, 'I don’t accept a homo in my house. You were born a real boy, I care for you like the rest of them, why do you do this to me?'” one child told the organization in 2012.

Another survey conducted by iSEE in 2009 found that a majority of gays and lesbians in Vietnam choose to keep their sexual identity hidden for fear of social repercussions. Only 2.5 percent of gay men said they had come out “completely,” and 5 percent said they were “mostly open.”  

The group has also found that public perceptions of LGBT people are largely negative in the country. About a third of respondents to the 2009 iSEE survey said that homosexuality is an “illness or contagion,” while 54 percent said that it is “due to a lack of parental care/love/guidance.” Half of all respondents said LGBT people “can be cured.” 

Some LGBT children reportedly run away from home because of the abuse they face. Most of these children turn to sex work to make a living, according to a 2012 study conducted by iSEE in collaboration with Save the Children.

That year, Tran Lan Anh, a teenage sex worker, told Viet Nam News that she had turned to the sex trade as a last resort after running away from home at the age of 13. 

She said she left home after enduring daily beatings and verbal abuse from her parents who condemned “her lesbian relationship.”

She recalled that later, when she applied for “manual jobs, the employers refused to hire me and used impolite words, reasoning that because I am not a normal person, I will steal their money.” 

Discrimination of LGBT people is not only common in the home and in the workplace, but also in schools, according to a 2014 USAID/UNDP report on LGBT rights in Vietnam. “Surveys report high levels of physical violence, sexual harassment and verbal abuse” in educational environments, the report said. “The result is that LGBT people do not feel safe. They experience violence, drop out of school and have suicidal thoughts.”

A lack of LGBT-friendly health care facilities and services is another major issue for the community, as are the discriminatory attitudes of medical practitioners.

In 2011, Thanh Nien News quoted an officer at Hanoi Community Health Care clinic as saying that “sex between a man and a woman is normal but sex between two men or two women is not normal.”

“I think it’s something sick,” the unnamed officer added. 

For the transgender community in Vietnam, another health care challenge is limited access to gender confirmation surgery options and hormone treatments.

Transgender people are also currently unable to legally change their gender designation, and may also encounter difficulties when trying to change their names on official documents.

Homosexuality, however, is not criminalized in Vietnam, and LGBT persons can serve in the military. Conversations about marriage equality and protections for LGBT people have begun at the government level. In recent years, the country has also hosted annual Pride events. 

Last year, activists celebrated a big win when Vietnam accepted the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendation to enact anti-discrimination laws to guarantee the equality of all citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Such legislation, however, remains purely theoretical.

Vietnam, which has been led by the communist party since reunification in 1975, is currently undergoing major legal reform, with many important laws slated for amendment. Huy says activists are now focused on pushing for the improvement and addition of laws pertaining to LGBT people, and also for greater awareness about LGBT issues.

“Sexuality education in public schools is one of the most challenging areas that we are trying to work on now,” he says. “The future is in the hands of the next generation. They need to have correct knowledge and be taught to be tolerant with diversity.”

The challenges facing activists, however, are immense. The human rights situation in Vietnam remains “critical,” because of a general lack of basic freedoms for citizens and endemic official corruption, according to Human Rights Watch. 

“The education curriculum is the same for all schools in Vietnam, even for private schools, and it’s controlled by the government. Trying to add sexuality education to the formal program is difficult and needs to be advocated for from the highest level,” Huy says.

“More public awareness about LGBT issues is also needed,” he adds. “We have a lot of things to advocate for when it comes to LGBT rights.”

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