LGBT teenagers, teachers discuss school stigma

By Sen    December 17, 2018 | 04:44 pm PT
“After I gave a girl classmate a present, other students abused and threatened me via email they would tell the world I’m weird.”

This was among the stories participants shared at an LGBT talk show hosted by Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) at the U.S. consulate on Friday. LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.

"Do you know what LGBT is?" Victor Nguyen, the host and organizer of the show asked a curious audience.

Victor, a member of YSEALI, commenced the talk show with the Gender Unicorn to demonstrate gender and sexuality spectrums. The animation has been adopted and translated into many languages around the world.

Photo courtesy of Trans Student Educational Resources

Graphics by U.S.-based Trans Student Educational Resources expresses the diversity of gender orientation.

"You can use it to help explain to parents and friends who you are."

He himself once used the Unicorn to explain to his mother who had told him to get medical treatment for loving a man.

"I posted a lot of pictures of me and my boyfriend online and blocked my mother from seeing all of them," he told VnExpress International.

"One day, I decided to unblock her and she asked, ‘what’s wrong with you?’. What followed was her demanding that I should go to the hospital because she thought I was sick."

Victor decided to stall the hospital visit by asking her out for lunch and a candid conversation. "I used the Gender Unicorn system to talk to her, and it worked. No more hospital visits."

He told the audience, "This model applies not only to LGBT people but to everyone."

This prompted several students to volunteer their stories.

Minh Ha, a Fulbright University student, was among those who confided in the audience: "It was in secondary school and I found myself attracted to a girl in class. I decided to give her a present. After that, other classmates threatened me via an email that they would tell the whole world that I’m weird."

An apprehensive Ha then decided to find a boy to date, "first love."

"It was only recently that I found out he is also gay," she recounted the coincidence with a laugh.

Khanh Minh, another Fulbright University student, said: "When I identified myself as a bi in high school, I cut my hair really short and some people at school didn’t want to talk to me. The girls said to me ‘you are a lesbian and we’re afraid you will hit on us,’ while the boys avoided me because I didn’t look like a boy or girl."

Instead of looking for a boy, she turned to academic excellence as a defense mechanism and ended up winning prizes and honors for her school in various competitions.

"I wanted to break the prejudice many teachers have about LGBT people that they don’t care about school and only about being ‘Bê đê’." It originates from "Pé dé," French slang for homosexual and a derogatory term used widely in Vietnam to attack gays.

Minh ended up being one of the first openly queer kids in her school to be treated with respect. She graduated high school with high achievemenes and many honors.

However, Minh acknowledged she did not have the best time of her life because she was not studying for herself but for other people’ expectations. "There is a common expectation for LGBT people that we have to excel academically," she added. 

Victor Nguyen, standing on stage (left) and the audience listening to Minh Ha, standing on the right about her experience in secondary school. Photo by Sen.

Victor Nguyen, standing on stage (left), and the audience listen to Minh Ha speaking about her mixed high school experience. Photo by Sen

Their experiences as young adults expressing their gender identity in high school prompted Minh and Ha to lead the Fulbright Pride and Alliance Club in university.

The club was formed to help organize dialogues, workshops and a safe zone for teachers and LGBT and heterosexual students to discuss LGBT and other gender issues.

Teachers struggle too

A teacher, known by his last name Le, recounted an event that he said gave him "goosebumps": "One time a female student of mine kissed another girl in front of me and other students.

"It’s not that I found it disgusting, but I didn’t know what to do at that point, so I just turned away."

Le is a former teacher at an international school. His concerns from an educator’s perspective dealing with LGBT issues at work sparked off a lively debate at the talk show.

Another incident that also perplexed Le involved a boy showing other boys how a perform oral sex using a banana right in front of him.

"I don’t know how to react in these situations. That’s why I came to this event. Teachers are held responsible by the school and parents, especially in cases like that.

"If those two girls kissing or the banana eater were to be recorded on camera or seen by parents or teachers, they would hold me accountable for inaction," he said, alluding to the traditional mindsets of Vietnamese parents and school authorities.

While some of the audience praised the public display of affection by the two girl students saying it would go toward countering social stigma against LGBT couples in Vietnam, some raised the question of its appropriateness in a school context and safety.

A foreign psychologist, who works as a counselor at an international school in HCMC, joined the discussion, saying: "The two girls can be allowed to kiss if it is ok for a boy and a girl to kiss. The only exception is if they don't feel safe.

"It might unfortunately not always be safe for them to do that anywhere and they should be aware of that, but they should be the ones to choose and we should support them."

When asked whether LGBT-related dialogues and education exist in schools in Vietnam, the teachers in the conference room said there had not been any at least in the schools they work/ed at or know of.

Le said: "There are no courses or instructions for conduct for LGBT students, and that’s why I came to this event to learn and listen to your thoughts. I hope that students can sympathize with teachers who are under particular pressure as educators in Vietnam."

Vietnam, where Gay Pride parades were held often in major cities in recent years, has been praised as a leader in LGBT rights in Asia. However, threats to the community still lurk in schools.

Surveys report that LGBT people in educational environments in Vietnam suffer from high levels of physical violence, sexual harassment and verbal abuse, according to a report by USAID and UNDP in 2014.

"There is a lack of relevant educational material and resources on LGBT issues, and social and counseling services," it said.

A survey on LGBT youth conducted by Save the Children and the Institute of Social & Medical Studies found that schools in Vietnam remained hostile for LGBT students, with 58.3 percent of them bullied or harassed by their peers and 23 percent saying their teachers and school staff also took part in the harassment.

The 2015 study surveyed 138 LGBT street children and youths aged 15-24 in Ho Chi Minh City.

go to top