The loneliness of Vietnam’s LGBT community

By Sen    September 5, 2018 | 09:22 pm PT
'A friend of mine committed suicide after I abandoned him for him confessing his homosexuality to me.'

Shocking, poignant stories were narrated at an unusual event hosted recently by the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Storytelling Contest on LGBTQI issues, involving members of the community as well as their families and friends, was part of a series of mini events supporting Viet Pride. LGBTQI stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and intersex.

Viet Pride is an annual event that focuses "on celebrating the freedom of love and personal expression, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity."

Most of the 23 contestants who participated in the event were 15-25 years old. Some sat alone, some surrounded by friends and families. Some looked cheerful, others looked nervous.

But when the story telling began, people bared their souls and shared their anguish.

Tran Duc Bao, who won the first prize at the contest, shared how his name was modified to mock him. His friends and classmates called him Bao Duc, the initials of which fit the pronunciation of "Bê đê".

"Bê đê," originating from "Pé dé," a French slang for homosexual, is a derogatory term widely used to attack gays in Vietnam.

"I used to bite my pillows in tears," Bao said.

Bao was a natural on stage, which was a winning element in his presentation, apart from his story. He demonstrated how he walks, according to his haters: pelvis out, shoulders back, a limp wrist, hips swishing from side to side. This was obviously a deliberate exaggeration, because Bao’s gait is nothing like the stereotype.

The 17-year-old student questioned the modern day freedom that does not grant him the freedom to be himself.

Tran Duc Bao, first prize winner at a Saigon storytelling contest on LGBT issues, shares his story of being discriminated for being gay. Photo courtesy of US Consulate General

Tran Duc Bao, first prize winner at a Saigon storytelling contest on LGBT issues, shares his story of being discriminated for being gay. Photo courtesy of US Consulate General

'More normal'

Another contestant, Vu Hoang Thanh Trang, did not suffer any discrimination.

She was the discriminator.

When her friend confessed that she liked her, Trang reacted in a shocking way that silenced her friend and drove her away. When Trang managed to apologize, her friend broke to tears and the two embraced each other.

"I wish I was more normal," her friend said.

Trang has since been accompanying her friend on her journey to find herself, providing her the mental support she needs. In the process, Trang has become a pillar of support for many other friends who face the thorny challenges faced by all LGBTQI individuals. She invited others around her, including the audience present, to expand their horizons on sexual orientation.

"Society cannot change immediately. If we can only inspire 3-5 people, that is okay. We are here, we can fight the stigma. We will make a difference, one mindset at a time," the 18-year-old said.

A ‘made-up’ story

Among many captivating stories, one by Ngo Thanh Triet stood out.

A Vietnamese student in Finland who calls himself "a gay guy who likes make-up," Triet’s attempt to boost his self-esteem backfired quickly.

"I felt judgmental eyes on me from everyone around me because of my make-up."

And this was happening in Finland, a country far more progressive and empathetic towards LGBTQI appearances and rights than many countries, including Vietnam.

Then, something else happened.

"One time, when I was at a bar, there were two girls sitting not so far from me.

"They were looking in my direction, with their hands covering their mouths as they spoke, and I realized they were talking about me."

The women ended up approaching Triet, and asked him a question he did not expect: "What highlighter do you use?"

It hit Triet then that he does not really know what people think of him – his own negative thoughts were wreaking havoc.

"So why do I stress myself about what others think of me?"

Ngo Thanh Triet shares his story at the contest. Photo courtesy of the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City

Ngo Thanh Triet shares his story at the contest. Photo courtesy of the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City

Misunderstanding, cruelty

Despite the upbeat nature of several stories, the pain caused by a society that discriminates against them was evident.

At another LGBT event hosted by the U.S. Consulate General last month, Doctor Nguyen Tan Thu and psychologist Mia Nguyen addressed common misunderstandings and responses that causes more suffering.

"To cure homosexuals, doctors injected hormones into them. If that does not work, they were subjected to electric shocks, either on top of their head, arms, or sexual organs," Thu said.

There was one gruesome method the doctor mentioned that sent shivers down the audience’s spine: corrective rape. The term was coined in South Africa after numerous rapes of lesbians. Perpetrators claimed that the act would transform the homosexual victim into heterosexual.

Thu categorically stated that all the abovementioned conversion therapies do not change the sexual orientation of "patients."

An openly gender queer person himself, Thu is an ardent activist for LGBTIQ rights. He is now a consultant for Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) where he provides counseling and HIV test referrals for men who have sex with men (MSM).

Boi Nhi, a freelance actress and health consultant at My Home Clinic, a LGBTQI-friendly clinic that welcomes patients who are afraid to go to public and private hospitals, spoke openly about her predicament.

She said that hormones used by transgender individuals are not regulated in Vietnam. "Transgenders like me who use these hormones are not protected by law," Nhi said. Homosexuals who want to become transgenders often look up to those who have already had sex reassignment surgery and seek their advice on hormone use, the actress said.

"We have no idea what these pills contain. Because the Ministry of Health does not inspect and supervise these hormone pills, we as transgenders have to resort to advice from successfully transgendered people for medical advice and support so that we can eventually find ourselves just like they did," Nhi said.

Mia Nguyen, a psychologist who has worked with the LGBTQI community for over a decade, told VnExpress International that sex reassignment surgery was not covered by health insurance in Vietnam. In contrast, in Australia, where she has worked since 2007, counselling and hormone therapy for people undergoing the surgery are covered by health insurance. She hoped that the operation will soon be covered by health insurance in Vietnam.

Vietnam is regarded highly in the region when it comes to supporting LGBTQI rights. It scrapped the ban on same-sex marriage in 2014. However, the nation’s laws does not recognize nor protect gay couples.

Harsh attitudes at home remain one of the toughest challenges facing Vietnam’s LGBT community.

Ending it all

"My friend committed suicide after I abandoned him for him confessing his homosexuality to me."

When Bui Quang Nghia’s friend came out of the closet and confided in him, Nghia cut off contact. He did not answer texts or phone calls. And before he could realize how much hurt he had caused by shunning his friend, it was too late. The friend overdosed on sleeping pills.

Nghia did not cry, but the pauses in his storytelling were pregnant with grief.

Nguyen Khanh shared another dramatic story about a friend of his.

He seemed to have everything anyone could want. He was intelligent, sociable, ambitious and had an excellent education funded by his family. But there was something inside that had been eating him up for a long time – his unorthodox sexual orientation.

As Khanh spoke, a picture of a railway track appeared on the screen.

"He stood there, one step away from death. He wanted to end it all. Do you think he jumped?", he asked, and the audience tensed up.

Nguyen then took a symbolic step back and said with a smile, "Fortunately, he did not. Because he is me."

go to top