Ngan and Huong have been together for 10 years. Although both are originally from the countryside, each moved to the more liberal Ho Chi Minh City for university. It was here, over an iced coffee between lectures, that they first met.
“We realized there was a spark straight away,” Ngan, aged 31, says. “It was like everything suddenly clicked into place.”
After secretly dating for a year, both eventually summoned the courage to come out to their respective parents. Ultimately, a lack of understanding from loved ones forced the couple to move in together in 2005. But despite living together for the last nine years, their relationship isn’t recognized under Vietnamese law.
This could all change come May, when Vietnam’s National Assembly concludes two years of deliberation on amendments to the Law on Marriage and Family. Legislators are set to make national history by enshrining into law provisions acknowledging the existence of gay couples for the first time. Although the government withdrew an option on marriage equality last year, the National Assembly may end up removing its current ban on gay marriage.
These developments have delighted and shocked gay rights advocates and made Vietnam a surprising torchbearer for LGBT issues in Southeast Asia. This is particularly remarkable when you consider that until 2000 it was illegal for gay couples to even live together.
“We were really surprised [the Communist Party of Vietnam] were putting LGBT issues on the agenda for public consultation,” says Mr. Huy, the legal officer at Vietnam’s peak social research body, the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE).
“It just shows the incredible progress that has been made in this area, even if it is less about providing rights for LGBT couples and more about making a legal headache go away.”
The legal headache that Huy is referring to would be the courtroom battles that have played out between separating same-sex couples. The judicial system has been flummoxed when it comes to resolving disputes over child custody, property and inheritance when there are no laws even recognizing the possibility of same-sex couples.
The nation’s judiciary demanded that the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) provide guidance on how to resolve these disputes. The opportunity arose during the Ministry of Justice’s review on the Law on Family and Marriage, which Vietnam’s legislative requirements stipulate must be revisited every ten years.
Behind the scenes, there has been tussle within the CPV over how to respond to gay rights issues. There is general consensus that the country’s Ministry of Justice and, to a lesser extent, Ministry of Health have been the most progressive. In 2012, Justice Minister Ha Hung Cuong spoke in support of same-sex marriage saying it was “unacceptable to create social prejudice against the homosexual community.
Observers say the most vigorous opposition has come from the Vietnamese Women’s Union, which perceives same-sex marriage as a threat to traditional family ideals. But the biggest challenge for the gay rights campaign is perhaps the most difficult: overcoming the status quo.
Homosexuality remains a taboo topic in the largely Confucian Vietnam and even some gay rights advocates accept that it may be too soon to legislate for marriage equality. Thuan Nguyen, Director of Hanoi’s LGBT Inclusive Business Development Initiative, argues the focus needs to be on changing traditional Vietnamese attitudes first.
“Many still believe it’s a mental illness or something to be ashamed of,” Thuan says. “And it was taken off Vietnam’s official list of mental illnesses in 2001.”
In 2002, Vietnam’s State-run media were describing homosexuality as a “social evil,” a description that was controversially rebuffed by a communist youth newspaper when it declared that “some people are born gay, just as some people are born left-handed.” A survey published in 2011 found that 87 per cent of respondents thought that homosexuality was a transmittable disease.
The first nationwide survey into public attitudes towards LGBT issues was published just two weeks ago. It showed that although there has been a reduction in opposition to same-sex partnerships, there is still a long way to go with half of survey respondents against both gay marriage and any legal recognition of same-sex cohabitation. The survey does show a shift in public sentiment, however, with the youth and college-educated firmly in favor of marriage equality.
The gay rights lobby accepts the fight for marriage equality needs clear majority support from the public before it receives CPV endorsement, which according to Thuan is more focused on shoring up its legitimacy. “LGBT rights are not seen as an urgent problem by the government. They are more concerned with economic growth, poverty reduction, jobs and stability.”
But that doesn’t mean that the CPV isn’t using a debate over same-sex marriage to its advantage. For a country often regarded as Southeast Asia’s most repressive state, there are advantages in having a very public conversation about a controversial issue.
“Over time the Vietnamese government has realized that this issue is scoring them points on the international stage,” according to Huy from the gay rights lobby iSEE.
Indeed, international human rights groups acknowledge that the CPV may be trying to exploit recent progress on gay rights as a means of “rainbow washing” its questionable record. Gay rights parades and public campaigns on marriage equality are allowed to occur, making this the one prominent area where there is substantive progress on freedoms of speech and assembly. All this is generating international goodwill, which pro-democracy advocates say the CPV is exploiting in order to distract from a recent crackdown on bloggers and dissidents, as seen with numerous high-profile arrests over the past year.
In the midst of this, gay rights campaigners are an unintended beneficiary of the communist regime’s suppression of organized movements and religions. Traditional opponents of marriage equality, such as religious groups, have been silenced over many decades. Despite the presence of nearly six million registered Catholics across the country, there have been no organized campaigns against gay rights that one would usually see in a liberal democracy.
Vietnam’s progress on gay rights stands in stark contrast to the retrograde laws adopted by its more conservative neighbors, such as Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar, and the nation should be applauded for advancing the conversation, according to Boris Dittrich, Advocacy Director for LGBT Rights at Human Rights Watch.
“To take such a step [of recognizing domestic partnerships] would really help LGBT groups in surrounding countries – including China – that can point to this progress as an example. There would definitely be spillover effects in the region,” he says.
Although the National Assembly won’t legalize gay marriage this year, civil rights groups believe any legal recognition of gay relationships is a step towards greater understanding of LGBT issues, according to Tung Tran, who heads the “I Do” campaign by gay rights lobby ICS.
“We want the legalization of same-sex marriage to be taken into consideration but in the meantime we need some forms of legal protection for cohabiting same-sex couples,” says Tung.
“At the grassroots level we are getting strong support for equality but it isn’t clear from our sources [that this extends to] the higher levels of government. I would hope that they take the right step and provide the legal foundations for cohabiting couples.”
Having this legal recognition means a great deal for couples like Ngan and Huong. They don’t want to be trailblazers – all they want is to be treated the same as any straight couple.
“We’ve lived together for nine years now and we want to be together forever,” says Huong. “I want our love to be recognized as equal.”
While Vietnam is making strides on LGBT issues, it doesn’t appear that lawmakers will take the bold step of endorsing marriage equality. Couples like Ngan and Huong will have to fight that battle in 10 years time, when the National Assembly next reviews the Law on Marriage and Family.
David Mann is a Hanoi-based freelance journalist.