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Vietnam Gay Marriage News Brings Hope, Uncertainty To Gay Vietnamese Americans

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The older she gets, the harder it is for Diana Bui to hide her sexual orientation from her big Vietnamese family. At 29, she's well past the traditional age for marriage, and she's running out of excuses to explain her single status, not to mention her short, asymmetrical haircut. So far, she said, only her mother, her brother, and a cousin in Vietnam know she identifies as queer.

But this weekend, that might change. The Washington, D.C., resident is heading home to California for a family reunion, and she's ready to talk with her extended family about a side of her life she hasn't discussed since her early 20s, when she first realized she was attracted to women. After the recent news, the subject feels almost unavoidable.

In late July, to Bui's shock, the Vietnamese government announced that it may change its position and recognize same-sex marriages as legal unions. On Sunday, more than a hundred activists biked through Vietnam's capital, trailing rainbow-colored streamers and shouting, "Equal rights for gays and lesbians," the Associated Press reported.

"Just hearing about what's happening in Vietnam is giving me more motivation and a little bit more courage and, oddly enough, support," Bui said. "I don't have to feel like [my family or community views this as] this disease or this is just a phase."

If Vietnam does legalize same-sex marriage, it will be the first country in Asia to do so. Like most Vietnamese Americans of her generation, Bui was raised by war refugees who risked their lives to come to the U.S. and still tell stories of suffering under the oppressive government back home. To this day, the government is frequently criticized by the international community for human rights abuses and, until recently, it listed homosexuality among the country's "social evils," along with prostitution and drug use.

When Bui first saw the news about the same-sex marriage shift online, she read the story three times in a row, just to make sure it was real. When she was growing up in the Vietnamese-American community around Los Angeles -- the largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam -- being gay was not acceptable. She knew some people who came out to their families and were kicked out of their homes.

"As immigrants, we weren't that economically successful, but the one thing we do have is reputation and respect for the community," Bui said. "So that's how success is measured: whether or not you have family, kids, a husband or wife."

The first time she heard her parents talk about gay people, she was 15 and the family was gathered in the living room watching comedian Ellen DeGeneres come out of the closet. "They kept asking, 'How did this happen to her? Did it start when she was young?' There was this assumption that it all came from Western culture," Bui recalled.

This experience is common among lesbian and gay children of Vietnamese immigrants. A few years ago when Tran My Le told her parents she was gay, her mother, a Buddhist, tried to take her to an herbalist to cure her.

"She thought it was because I grew up in America, and that it was a Western construct or a disease and if I had been born in Vietnam, then I wouldn't have to deal with it," said Le, who is now 21 and lives in Los Angeles, where she does organizing with API-Equality, a gay rights group for the Asian and Pacific Islander communities.

Le refused to see an herbalist, and she never talked about the subject again, although she does bring her girlfriend over to the house for dinner. Her parents keep trying to set her up with promising young men in the community. "We're considered invisible right now," Le said.

Gina Masequesmay, a professor of Asian-American studies at California State University-Northridge, said that it's common to hear Vietnamese immigrants talk about homosexuality as a "Western" condition. But historically, gay people have existed peacefully in Vietnam.

"What is Western is to come out, not that you're gay," Masequesmay said, adding that in the past, a married man in Vietnam could take a male lover, and it would not be controversial as long as he fulfilled his "duty as a father and a husband."

The pressure to live up to these traditional standards still weighs on many gay American children of Vietnamese immigrants, and for some, legalizing same-sex marriage in the old country won't change that. Tracey Nguyen, a 23-year-old living in Berkeley, Calif., and working for API-Equality, has yet to tell her parents that she identifies as queer. Though they know she's working for a political advocacy group, she leaves out the part about gay rights. She hasn't discussed the recent news from Vietnam and is not sure she ever will.

"My parents came here in the '80s, and they always hopped from job to job, and with all their hardship and their escape from Vietnam, I want to make it worth it for them," Nguyen said. "I feel that coming out would hurt them."

In Vietnam, Justice Minister Ha Hung Cuong has framed the idea of legalizing same-sex marriage as a purely practical matter. "I think, as far as human rights are concerned, it's time for us to look at the reality," he said in a recent interview broadcast on national TV and radio, according to AP. "The number of homosexuals has mounted to hundreds of thousands. It's not a small figure. They live together without registering marriage. They may own property. We, of course, have to handle these issues legally."

But both Nguyen and Masequesmay are skeptical about the government's motivations. (The Justice Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Huffington Post.) Masequesmay sees it as part of a strategy to convince the international community that the Vietnamese government is forward-thinking. Three weeks before the justice minister gave his interview, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she has raised U.S. concerns about human rights in Vietnam, including the detention of activists, lawyers and bloggers for "the peaceful expression of opinions and ideas."

"Marriage can be a football for countries to kick around. But so what if you recognize same-sex marriage if you don't have other rights or protections?" Masequesmay said. "All it says is, as long as you're gay, we might give you marriage, but you better not protest on any other issues, or jail."

Tri Do, a gay Vietnamese-American physician and researcher based in the San Francisco Bay area, reacted to the news differently. In his work on HIV prevention in Vietnam over the last decade, he has seen some signs of progress and acceptance in the government and in the society generally. "I see what's happening now as a natural progression in the country and in the government," he said. "Although what the government does and what people feel and think on the ground can be a very different thing."

Bui, too, was skeptical of the government's motivations at first, but now she is focused on the people close to her. She hasn't decided what exactly she'll say to her family, but she thinks she'll say something. "There's no way that people can't talk about it," she said. "Not anymore."

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