LGBT rights are coming to Vietnam much more quickly than other parts of Southeast Asia. The Communist Party of Vietnam has not interfered with gay rights activists nor prohibited pride parades (pictured above). The National Assembly is even finishing up debate on same-sex marriage or civil unions. However, critics warn that it could be a plan to deflect Western criticism from crackdowns on other dissidents.
Vietnam's National Assembly will conclude two years of discourse and debate on amendments to the Law on Marriage and Family with law provisions acknowledging the existence of gay couples for the first time. The national assembly has waffled, removing the option of marriage equality last year only to come back to removing the ban on same-sex marriage this year. This level of progress seems really fast, because as recently as 15 years ago, it was illegal for same-sex couples to even live together, and homosexuality was only dropped as a mental illness in 2001. The rapidity of the progress has led to Vietnam being recognised as a leader in LGBT issues in Southeast Asia.
Obviously, same-sex couples exist. They buy property. They share children. They have issues of inheritance. The courts of Vietnam have not been able to deal with lawsuits regarding the resolutions of these conflicts when legal challenges are filed. Huy Luong, the legal officer at a Vietnamese social research body, the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), calls this a "legal headache" for the Vietnamese government.
We were really surprised [the Communist Party of Vietnam was] putting LGBT issues on the agenda for public consultation. 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 courts have demanded that the national assembly give clear guidelines on how to respond to these suits, and with the ten year mandatory revision of the Law on Marriage and Family, the opportunity arose to consider how to give the judiciary a process by which to follow. Not everyone within the party or the assembly seems to be behind expanding LGBT rights, but the cause has a strong ally in Justice Minister Ha Hung Cuong, who said in 2012 that it was "unacceptable to create social prejudice against the homosexual community."
Thuan Nguyen, Director of Hanoi's LGBT Inclusive Business Development Initiative, is dubious that marriage equality will come any time soon, citing that the LGBT+ community in Vietnam needs to do far more to turn the opinion of the common Vietnamese on the street. While the CPV has framed this discourse as necessary to solve issues within the courts, other expansions of LGBT legal rights may not occur until the general population shows support, of even demands the CPV do something to change its legal frameworks regarding LGBT+ individuals. There are other voices the government considers priorities, says Ngyuen.
LGBT rights are not seen as an urgent problem by the government. They are more concerned with economic growth, poverty reduction, jobs and stability.
According the Huy at iSEE, the CPV has been quick to embrace at least the pretense that this discussion is of major importance to its political life, as it has recognised that despite progress in some areas, and the opening up of the country to tourism and foreign investment, the nation is still seen as repressive by many in the West. Getting out on the forefront of LGBT rights in an area of the world not known for its progressive handling of same-sex relationships could help the CPV rehabilitate Vietnam's image.
Over time the Vietnamese government has realised that this issue is scoring them points on the international stage.
Hanoi based freelance journalist David Mann agrees, saying that it may be a case of Vietnam attempting to "rainbow wash" its history.
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.
Tung Tran, who heads the "I Do" campaign in Vietnam, is less interested in marriage equality in the future than the immediate recognition of domestic partnerships. Although the debate among Vietnamese activists seems similar to many other marriage equality conversations: actual rights enshrined in law even with the appearance of "inferiority" in comparison to heterosexual marriage, there seems to be a broad consensus that the rights must be the focus of lobbying party officials.
We want the legalisation 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. 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.
The National Assembly of Vietnam is quite unlikely to pass marriage equality prior to the next ten year revision of the Law on Marriage and Equality, but it has the ability (and the responsibility) to ease the burden of same-sex couples now living in Vietnam by providing them with real, tangible recognition of their partnerships.
Image via AP.