Prudish Vietnam Makes Its Coming Out
Bruno Philip

About a hundred cyclists streamed the streets of Hanoi on August 5 waving rainbow pennants and yelling "Support gay marriage!" Good Lord! Has prudish Vietnam initiated a sort of ‘social coming out,’ even before turning to democracy?

The fact is that the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a tightly controlled single-party state still shaped by Confucian conservative values, has just experienced its “first gay pride.”

Despite lacking full official approval from authorities, the event went smoothly. Even if it failed to cause euphoria in the picturesque streets of Vietnam’s capital city, the event can be seen as a step forward towards openness, confirmed a week earlier by Justice Minister Ha Huong Cong’s statement: "I think, as far as human rights are concerned, it's time for us to look at reality. The number of homosexuals has grown to hundreds of thousands. It's not a small figure. They live together without registering marriage. They sometimes own property. We have to handle these issues legally."

Experts have real doubts over Vietnam legalizing same-sex marriage in the near future. However, Vietnamese MPs are expected to debate next year over a bill that could grant a special legal status for same-sex couples. "In South East Asia, the issue of same-sex marriage has never been addressed, not even in Thailand. What is happening in Vietnam is a surprise for a lot of people," says sociologist Le Quang Binh. Unlike Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines where Islam and Catholicism prevail, there is no major pressure group that could act as a barrier to gay rights in Vietnam, the researcher points out. Nevertheless, only a few dare to come out, as homosexuality is still regarded as deviant behavior in most Vietnamese families. “I’m sad I can’t tell my mother about who I really am,” said a twenty-year old lesbian while taking part in the parade with her partner.

The regime's tolerance towards the issue may seem surprising in a country where political dissent is fiercely repressed. Yet as Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division points out, homosexuality is “a social reality which does not threaten government stability.” Similar gay marches recently took place in Singapore, Laos and Burma, three countries that can hardly be described as triumphant democracies.

In ultra-prudish Malaysia - where sodomy can result in up to 20 years in jail - gay pastor Ngeo Boon Lin even dared to hold a banquet in Kuala Lumpur on August 4 to celebrate his marriage with his partner Phineas Newborn. Yet the official ceremony had taken place in New York in September 2011.

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