LGBT parents create safe spaces to share painful stories

By Sen    October 22, 2018 | 11:38 pm PT
Vietnamese parents of LGBT children are helping the healing process by creating safe spaces for sharing painful, poignant stories.

There is a popular perception, justified to an extent, that parents and families are the main stumbling blocks for members of the LGBTQI community in terms of their coming out and finding acceptance in mainstream society.

An attempt to change this is being made by Vietnamese parents who’ve confronted their own demons in dealing with their children’s different sexual orientations.

At a public talk show last month, such parents shared some real life stories of LGBTQI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and intersex) people, highlighting social prejudices that affect all stakeholders.

One of the main organizers of the event was PFLAG, the first community of its kind in Vietnam. PFLAG stands for "Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays".

It was not a crowded gathering, but the stories it elicited were overwhelmingly touching.

Mother Chau, a prominent figure in PFLAG community, who has a gay son, was the first to share the story of a lesbian she met at a restaurant she used to work.

PFLAG member Chau shares an LGBT case she consulted. Sititng next to her is another PFLAG member, Thang (left). Thang and Chau are both familiar parent faces in the LGBT community. Photo by Sen

PFLAG member Chau shares an LGBT case she helped with. Sititng next to her is another PFLAG member, Thang (left). Thang and Chau are both familiar parent faces in the LGBT community. Photo by Sen

Family honor and marriages of convenience

Because of her sexual orientation, the woman no longer lived with her family. The problem wasn’t her parents - it was her grandmother who would reprimand her harshly. The grandmother’s last words, just before she died, set the tone for the rest of this woman’s life: "She has to get a husband."

To appease her relatives and maintain the "family honor," the young woman returned home for a wedding with a paid groom, who was told of the situation. He was fully compensated for his participation in the face-saving marriage, but it did not stop him from getting drunk and raping his lesbian wife one day.

The rape not only traumatized the woman to the extent of requiring prolonged medication, it also made her pregnant. She gave birth to a "slow child" as a result of all the medicines she’d taken to deal with her mental trauma.

Chau was almost in tears as she narrated the story.

"This is a wake-up call for parents out there," she said. A healthy woman gave up her way of life and true self to fulfill a death wish, with tragic results.

"Is this the price one must pay for family honor?" Chau asked all listeners.

"Because the pregnancy was helping the woman recover her mental health, abortion was not recommended. Now she is doing much better and is no longer heavily dependent on medication. Her child now goes to school," Chau added.

The accidental father claimed that the contractual nature of their "marriage" meant he had no responsibility towards his victim and child. The family did not press charges.

It might have been love that motivated the family to coerce the woman into the accepted mold of gender norms, but that love was a recipe for disasters, Chau said.

"Now we see love resurrected with healing power in this story, as the rape victim and her child are now living in the caring, affectionate arms of a woman."

No sex life

Mother Yen Ly, president of PFLAG Vietnam, shared another story of suffering and healing.

A man in his late 30s, a resident of the central Thanh Hoa Province where traditional prejudices against gay people still hold strong, was married and had a teenage daughter, but his life was hell.

The couple had no sex life because he was gay.

"Every night I would try to find work somewhere to do and only come back home when my wife is asleep. It was a glimpse of hell every time I crossed our bed," he told Ly.

He finally decided to put everything on the table, literally, with a letter of confession to his wife. This is not something any heterosexual married woman expects to experience. She was heartbroken, and his parents were furious. Coming out of the closet created an immense distance between him and his family.

Following Ly’s advice, the man invited his parents to different workshops organized by PFLAG for parents of LGBT children. Gradually they came out of their hate and prejudice to welcome their son for who he was.

The man is now happily divorced and his daughter visits him frequently.

Unheard of

Huynh Minh Thao, aka Sas Ri, director of communications and services of ICS – the first LGBT rights organization in Vietnam, said "loveless marriages benefit neither our society nor the relationship."

He reckoned that the root cause for this happening was Vietnamese parents’ fear that their LGBT children were destined to live a tough life without a life partner that could bear them children.

"Getting married, bearing offspring and being taken care of by them is the most favored normal way of living. The idea of LGBT individuals having a healthy, happy life outside of this model is unheard of, for a lot of parents," Thao said.

Still a man’s world

A panel guest - a media expert who requested anonymity, said gender disparity was another problem that rears its ugly head in LGBT issues, and that the victim was not always the person with a different sexual orientation.

He shared the story of a highly respected teacher in a small city, who is also a government official in the local educational department.

Everything about the teacher’s life goes according to the book – a Vietnamese middle-aged man, secure career, dedicated wife and kids.

There is just one caveat: he likes men.

Unlike the previous story, this man has not bothered to keep his orientation from his immediate family. He has built a private room in his house where only he and his lovers are allowed. "The room is fully equipped and super romantic," said the expert.

However, this does not mean his wife and children are free from living a lie because they cannot utter a word to anyone, given the status he has in society. For the same reason, divorce is out of the question.

Outwardly, the wife is going through the life of a normal, traditional Vietnamese woman – devoted to her husband, whose happiness comes before hers. But her real life suffering has no outlet.

In this case, it was the straight spouse, the wife and a mother, who has been victimized and needed help, the guest noted.

Teddy, a guest advises others on coming out successfully. Sitting next to him is his mother, Dinh Thi Yen Ly, president of PFLAG. It took Ly five years to accept her sons sexual identity and mend their relationship. Sitting across them are another mother-LGBT son pair whove also been through their own journey towards understanding one another. Photo by Sen

Teddy, a guest advises others on coming out successfully. Sitting next to him is his mother, Dinh Thi Yen Ly, president of PFLAG. It took Ly five years to accept her son's sexual identity and mend their relationship. Sitting across them are another mother-LGBT son pair who’ve also been through their own journey towards understanding one another. Photo by Sen

A strategic coming out

One of the most asked questions in the LGBT community is: "How do I come out safely?"

And it was raised again at the event.

Teddy, a university lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh University of Technology, recommended a strategic approach.

He said: "You need to calculate all the risks. If you want your parents to understand you, make sure you are also willing to understand them.

ICS director Thao elaborated on this. She said there was no blanket solution that fits every family, but the some steps can be useful.

"First of all, know thyself. LGBT members need to know who they are, what they need, and essentially equip themselves with relevant LGBT knowledge.

"The second step involves finding an ally in the family, who has an open and receptive mind. Last, but not the least, team up with that person to find other family members who can sympathize with your situation."

Thao advised: "Every family is different, but having an ally means you will be protected to an extent, especially when that person has a big influence in the family."

Everyone attending the event agreed that more time and effort was needed to raise understanding and empathy so that the sad stories narrated would, in the future, become an anomaly in the country.

That is the mission that ICS and PFLAG Vietnam have set for themselves. While ICS works towards LGBTI+ community empowerment, social change, and law advocacy, as well as providing consultation and legal aid, PFLAG devotes its resources to similar initiatives and organizes safe platforms for LGBT discussions.

Parents are scared, too

A key aspect of the LGBT experience highlighted at the talk show was the parents’ plight.

Chau said that it is always difficult for parents to keep up with their children, who shift from one milestone of growth to another.

In the case of different sexual orientation, "you should help your parents confront the naysayers and enrich their LGBT knowledge," she told a teenager.

She said it was fear and ignorance that made some parents strive hard to protect family honor for the sake of outsiders while "attacking their own children."

The event’s host said he felt parents of LGBTQI+ chide their children not because they do not love them, but because they are deeply offended by outsiders’ mocking of their loved ones for their unorthodox sexual orientations. They want to change that, "but sometimes they direct their anger at the wrong person - their own children.

"Even you need time to accept and welcome yourself, how can parents instantly accept you" an event organizer asked.

"When you are becoming more cognizant of the fact that you are different, think about your parents. Have you ever considered your parents’ perspective? That they are scared too because they are different for having a gay child?"

go to top