Same-Sex Marriage Rights in Viet Nam—The Conversation Begins

In recent years, diaCRITICS has seen the debates regarding gay marriage take center stage not only in the United States but also in Europe, as states and nations have struggled over whether to extend civil rights and social inclusion to members of the LGBTQ community. We are surprised to see that Viet Nam’s government is now considering whether to allow same-sex couples to marry or legally register and receive rights, positioning Viet Nam to be the first country in Asia to do so, after twelve other countries around the world have legalized gay marriage since 2001. This would be a remarkable achievement not only for Viet Nam but also for gay rights advocates and allies everywhere. Vien Tanjung in Indonesia states, “Even if it’s not successful it’s already making history.” The first article below, written by Associated Press writer Margie Mason in Hanoi (with contributions by Sean Yoong), has now appeared in newspapers all over the world. It is followed by an interview between Andrew Lam and Nguyen Qui Duc on the potential legalization of gay marriage, reposted from New America Media. Nguyen cautions that the conversations about gay marriage might actually be “a diversion, a measure to block criticism on repression of bloggers, or on urban protesters of government, party policies and corruption.” 

[before we begin: like diaCRITICS? why not subscribe? see the options to the right, via feedburner, email, and networked blogs]

Viet Nam Makes History by Considering Same-Sex Marriage Rights

Dinh Thi Hong Loan, 30, left, kisses her girlfriend, Nguyen Thi Chi, 20, at their one-room apartment in an alley in Hanoi, Vietnam. The lesbian couple have dated for more than 2 years and planned to get married next month. (AP Photo/Na Son Nguyen)

Dinh Thi Hong Loan grasps her girlfriend’s hand, and the two gaze into each other’s love-struck eyes. Smiling, they talk about their upcoming wedding—how they’ll exchange rings and toast the beginning of their lives together.

The lesbians’ marriage ceremony in the Vietnamese capital won’t be officially recognized, but that could soon change. Vietnam’s Communist government is now considering whether to allow same-sex couples to marry or legally register and receive rights— positioning the country to be the first in Asia to do so.

“Our love for each other is real and nothing changes regardless of whether the law is passed or not,” said Loan, 31. “But when it is passed, we will definitely go get registered. I can’t wait!”

Even longtime gay-rights activists are stunned by the Justice Ministry’s proposal to include same-sex couples in its overhaul of the country’s marriage law. No one knows what form it will take or whether it will survive long enough to be debated before the National Assembly next year, but supporters say the fact that it’s even being considered is a victory in a region where simply being gay can result in jail sentences or whippings with a rattan cane.

“I think everyone is surprised,” said Vien Tanjung, an Indonesian gay-rights activist. “Even if it’s not successful it’s already making history. For me, personally, I think it’s going to go through.”

Vietnam 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. Up until just a few years ago, homosexuality was labeled as a “social evil” alongside drug addiction and prostitution.

And Vietnam’s gay community itself was once so underground that few groups or meeting places existed. It was taboo to even talk about the issue.

But over the past five years, that’s slowly started to change. Vietnam’s state-run media, unable to write about politically sensitive topics or openly criticize the one-party government, have embraced the chance to explore gay issues. They have run lengthy newspaper stories and television broadcasts, including one live special that won a top award.

Video of Vietnam’s first publicized gay wedding went viral online in 2010, and a few other ceremonies followed, capturing widespread public attention. The Justice Ministry now says a legal framework is necessary because the courts do not know how to handle disputes between same-sex couples living together. The new law could provide rights such as owning property, inheriting and adopting children.

“I think, as far as human rights are concerned, it’s time for us to look at the reality,” Justice Minister Ha Hung Cuong said Tuesday in an online chat broadcast on national TV and radio. “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.”

Globally, 11 countries have legalized same-sex marriage since the Netherlands became the first to do so in 2001. Only a few U.S. states allow it, but President Barack Obama provided hope for many couples worldwide after announcing his support earlier this year.

Nguyen Thi Chi, 20, left, kisses her girlfriend Dinh Thi Hong Loan, 30, at Thong Nhat park in Hanoi, Viet Nam. (AP Photo/Na Son Nguyen)

The issue has remained largely off the table across Asia. In Thailand, many tourists see a vibrant gay, lesbian and transgender community, but it exists largely as part of the country’s lucrative entertainment industry, separated from politics and conservative Thai society.

Muslim-dominated nations such as Indonesia have strict laws against homosexuality. Sodomy can result in up to 20 years in jail and caning in Malaysia. But that hasn’t stopped some from continuing to fight for more rights and visibility.

In Singapore, more than 15,000 people—double last year’s turnout—recently held up pink lights in a park at night to support acceptance of the community in a modern city-state where gay sex remains illegal, even though the law is not enforced.

In Taiwan, a 2003 bill to recognize same-sex marriage failed to receive enough support to make it law, though a lesbian couple is expected to tie the knot in August at a Buddhist monastery.

Vietnam will also hold its first public gay pride parade Aug. 5 in Hanoi. The country is socially conservative, but the government restricts the kind of politicized religious movements that typically push back against same-sex marriage in other countries. Gay pride events also seem to pose little threat to Communist Party’s dominance.

Nguyen Thi Chi, 20, left, plays with her girlfriend Dinh Thi Hong Loan, 30, at Thong Nhat park in Hanoi, Viet Nam. (AP Photo/Na Son Nguyen)

The same-sex marriage proposal still has several hurdles before it could become law. The Justice Ministry will consider opinions from the public along with government agencies before submitting its draft proposal to the National Assembly next May on whether to recommend same-sex marriage or some other type of legal recognition with rights. Then, it must be approved by a majority of parliament.

“Some people told me if Vietnam could legalize it, it would be very good example for other counties to follow,” said Le Quang Binh, head of the nonprofit Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment, which is consulting on the marriage law. “People think that talking about it is a big step forward already. … I hope it will lead to more openness or tolerance for gays and lesbians in Vietnam.”

As for Vietnamese partners Loan and Nguyen Thi Chi, who share a one-room apartment down a narrow alley in Hanoi, they say their love and commitment is real, regardless of whether a law exists to recognize them when they marry next month. But they hope the new proposal will ease stigma that lingers around same-sex couples.

Chi, 20, knows the pain of discrimination all too well. She recently dropped out of college after being publicly outed by a note taped to one of her classroom doors saying she was “diseased.” She was harassed and bullied for a year and a half on campus until finally deciding she’d had enough.

“Things must change,” she said. “Even though it was not a nice experience, more and more people are interested in knowing about the community. And the more people that know about it, the more people will have a different view on it.”

Associated Press writer Margie Mason writes from Hanoi, with contributions by Sean Yoong in Malaysia.


Will Vietnam Legalize Gay Marriage?

Currently hot on movie screens in Asia is "Hot Boy Noi Loan," one of the first sympathetic films about the gay life in Vietnam.

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 by 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–is being planned in Hanoi for August 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 his Hanoi in 2006, and opened a popular bar and restaurant called Tadioto. New America Media (NAM) editor, Andrew Lam conducted an interview by e-mail with Nguyen for his point of view on Vietnam’s latest cultural trend.

New America Media: The news that Vietnam might legalize gay marriage came from 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?

Nguyen: 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.

NAM: 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?

Nguyen: People are generally tolerant, but in several occasions I’ve seen rather unsophisticated attitudes toward homosexuals. As I mentioned, in the media they’re odd balls, 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 cafes, 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.

NAM: 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?

Nguyen: I see more and more openness, especially in urban areas. There are more openly gay men and women, there are cafes 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, break-ups 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 website. The media have reported on parks and public spaces where older, more established men, presumably married, go to have gay sex.

NAM: 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 the gay life in Vietnam, with main characters who are gay. What do young people think of the movie?

Nguyen: 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.

NAM: 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?

Nguyen: 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 regards 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 Southeast 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 happen to have said something. Then it just balloons out to something bigger, more official. I don’t know that anything will happen.

NAM: 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.

Nguyen: 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 cafes and karaoke. So people turn to the Internet. But one must be aware that such videos or expression of alternative lifestyle 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.

NAM: Vietnam is now having the first gay pride parade ever in Hanoi. August 5th. Somehow this is permissible when religious events are still tightly controlled. What to make of this?

Nguyen: 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 on-lookers.

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.

Andrew Lam is author of 
East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. His next book, Birds of Paradise Lost, is due out in 2013.

Do you enjoy reading diaCRITICS? Then please consider subscribing!

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What’s your opinion on gay marriage? How else can homophobia (and the stigma towards LGBTQ people) be challenged, within Vietnamese society and peoples?


  1. I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, it could totally be a political diversion, an attempt to appear modern and get positive press. If so, it may be working. On the other hand though, I don’t like that kind of language because it characterizes the queer community’s need as irrelevant. Whether or not the government is actually trying to use LGBTQ issues as a tool or not is almost immaterial; if this issue gets too much press as a “political diversion,” then that rhetoric becomes just another way of de-legitimizing the queer community.

    What I’m trying to say here is that I think the language that’s used to discuss this issue is very important. We can herald this development as a good thing and still remain skeptical of other, more oppressive developments at the same time. The one does not need to displace the other.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here