HANOI, Vietnam — More than 100 demonstrators rode bicycles and motorbikes through Vietnam's capital Sunday in the country's first-ever gay pride parade, spurred by an unexpected government proposal to recognize same-sex couples in law.
The parade to raise awareness of Vietnam's gay and lesbian community and call for equal rights began in scorching heat at Hanoi's national stadium Sunday morning and ended about 10 kilometers (6 miles) away at a downtown park. Demonstrators trailed rainbow-colored streamers and shouted "Equal rights for gays and lesbians!" and "We support same-sex marriage!"
It was a scene that was unimaginable a few years ago, when Vietnam still labeled homosexuality a "social evil" alongside drug addiction and prostitution. The country's gay community was once so underground that few groups or meeting places existed, and it was taboo to even talk about the issue.
But Vietnam's state-controlled media now explores gay issues, and the Justice Ministry recently proposed including same-sex couples in its overhaul of the country's marriage law – positioning Vietnam to be the first country in Asia to allow same-sex couples to marry or legally register. The new law could provide rights such as owning property, inheriting and adopting children.
Demonstrators said Sunday the proposal is a victory even if the government does not end up legalizing same-sex marriage.
"Change needs time," said Hoang Duc Duy, a 21-year-old banking student. "It's good to speak out and do something."
Several demonstrators said that Vietnamese society is starting to accept same-sex relationships, but stigmas persist and some gays and lesbians are afraid to publicly admit their sexual orientation.
"Many Vietnamese still believe that gay people don't exist in Vietnam," said Nguyen Thanh Tam, a 25-year-old parade organizer.
Globally, 11 countries have legalized same-sex marriage since the Netherlands became the first to do so in 2001. President Barack Obama provided hope for many couples worldwide after announcing his support for it earlier this year, but the issue has remained largely off the table across Asia, where being gay can result in prison sentences in some countries.
The Vietnamese government seems an unlikely champion of gay-rights issues. It is routinely lambasted by the international community over its dismal human rights record, often locking up political dissidents who call for democracy or religious freedom.
Vietnam is socially conservative, but the government restricts the kind of politicized religious movements that push back against same-sex marriage in other countries. Gay pride events also seem to pose little threat to the Communist Party's dominance.