Recent news that Vietnam might consider legalizing same-sex marriage, a move that would make Vietnam the first Asian country to do so, stirred up quite a bit of debate among the diaspora of Vietnamese people in many countries, as well as in the gay community. Although the discussion of whether to legalize same-sex marriage won't take place in the National Assembly Congress until spring 2013, gay weddings have been happening in Vietnam's capital and other cities. In fact, a gay-pride parade, the first of its kind, took place in Hanoi Aug. 5.
Nguyen Qui Duc is a Vietnamese-American author, artist, translator, and radio broadcaster who has worked with NPR and the BBC and written for many newspapers in the United States. He returned to Hanoi in 2006 and opened a popular bar and restaurant called Tadioto. Several days before Hanoi's gay-pride parade, I conducted an interview with Nguyen by email for his point of view on Vietnam's latest cultural trend.
The news that Vietnam might legalize gay marriage came out of left field for many of us in the West and many who think of Vietnam as a conservative police state. How did this come about? Do you think it might actually happen, or is it blown out of proportion?
The news came out of left field here, too, but it seems it's Western foreign media that's focusing on this. I am not sure how this came about, but there had been incidents within the last weeks where there were a couple of ceremonial weddings, including among university students.
I don't think it will happen. Local people feel it may be a diversion from economic issues. People don't seem to be talking about it too much, except within the rarified urban elite, using social networks like Facebook and private blogs. This news came as people are very concerned about economic downturn, price hikes, and government reactions against people protesting China's advances in the East [South China] Sea.
How are gays and gay couples being treated in Vietnam, in your opinion? How are they portrayed in the media? Are they still being frowned on, in general?
People are generally tolerant, but in several occasions I've seen rather unsophisticated attitudes toward homosexuals. As I mentioned, in the media they're oddballs, farcical, criminals, and prostitutes. A few stories I have seen have shown them in better light, but it's a long way toward full acceptance.
I feel that many still keep themselves pretty hidden. In big cities, such as Hanoi, Saigon, and Danang, there are gay clubs and cafés, but beyond that, there's really little presence. Comments on social sites, blogs, etc., show discrimination, sometimes harsh.
Children use the word "PD" [short for "pederast"] in derogatory fashion. In many areas, the Vietnamese are still very conformist, due to Confucian and Communist pressure, but at the same time -- in a society in transition, fast changing, overcrowded, and in the rush towards development - -there's also a "live and let live" attitude.
You've been in Vietnam for over six years now and opened a bar called Tadioto in Hanoi. With your eyes on the social scene, can you comment on shifting social mores toward homosexuality?
I see more and more openness, especially in urban areas. There are more openly gay men and women, there are cafés and clubs for them, and it seems to not bother people in general. The mainstream media sometimes report on their activities. There are no celebrity cases, however, and in private, attitudes are still rather discriminatory.
I have also found that there's a community of lesbian women. Some tell me they don't like the sexist and disrespectful attitudes of Vietnamese men, so they turn to women for love. A couple of years ago, there was a trend in which women experimented with same-sex sexual relations. It was described as a fashion. Sexual activities in general seem to be unlimited for many. People say they want more independence, breakups and divorces are frequent, and men and women have affairs fairly easily; it's just accepted. This has a bearing on homosexual life, as well.
In my bar, homosexual clients come and go openly, express themselves through attitudes, clothes, stories, and normal affectionate behavior without anyone raising an eyebrow. I've seen this at other clubs and bars, but these are rare places where anyone is welcome. I don't know that other establishments are the same.
But there are many gay blogs and websites. The media have reported on parks and public spaces where older, more established men, presumably married, go to have gay sex.
The cultural scene is changing fast in Vietnam, with hip-hop dance crews, rap artists, and independent films being made, such as Hot Boy Noi Loan, a first sympathetic film about gay life in Vietnam, with main characters who are gay. What do young people think of the movie?
I have not heard a lot about Hot Boy Noi Loan. I have helped on several movie scripts in which gay men and women are portrayed as alienated, poor, on the fringe of society, and are criminals and prostitutes.
China hasn't moved on this issue, but Vietnam is making waves. Why do you think Vietnam is advancing in this area of human rights when it's behind in so many other areas?
The opinion here is that this is a diversion, a measure to block criticism on repression of bloggers, or on urban protesters of government, party policies, and corruption. It is also a sensitive time in regard to conflict with China. Cynical views of the government and of the ruling party are rampant, so this issue naturally falls into a category of "one more thing to doubt the government."
In reality, I think it's just normal in a fast-developing society. People travel to many countries in Asia, such as Indonesia, Thailand, Korea, and Japan, where attitudes are different. As for the government, sometimes it's trial balloons being floated around, or some high-ranking person in the government or party who happens to have said something. Then it just balloons out to something bigger, more official. I don't know that anything will happen.
In the form of freedom of speech, it seems on the cultural ground there's been some major shift. There are YouTube videos being produced showing gay weddings in Vietnam.
Urban Vietnamese now have access to social media, to new technology, to things like YouTube. And they use them. Even in a place like Hanoi, there are few things for young people to do but hang out in cafés and karaoke, so people turn to the Internet. But one must be aware that such videos or expressions of alternative lifestyles only happen with a small segment of the population. They are novelties, and they are noticed. But in general, most people I know don't even think about such issues.
Vietnam is having its first gay-pride parade ever in Hanoi Aug. 5. Somehow this is permissible when religious events are still tightly controlled. What can we make of this?
It is surprising. I think it's one of those cases where things are allowed to relieve pressure, to let people let off steam. But if it grows too big, takes on a political tone, or becomes a "dangerous" precedent, for example, cracking down is not too hard [for authorities], and stopping further expressions will happen easily enough. I don't think too many people are aware of this parade. It remains to be seen whether it will actually happen, draw a real crowd of people wishing to express themselves, or more curious onlookers.
Having said all the above, I feel that the attention to this issue, both by foreign and local media, will bring out the issue, get things in the open, and slowly.
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Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. His next book, Birds of Paradise, is due out in March 2013.