Clash of views on LGBTQ+ in Vietnam

By Huong Ly, Hoang Hai   September 1, 2022 | 05:07 pm PT
Clash of views on LGBTQ+ in Vietnam
A gay man is silhoutted on a gay rainbow flag during a demonstration for gay rights in Hanoi, Vietnam, November 24, 2015. Photo by Reuters/Kham
“If we, as parents of LGBTQ+ children, seek happiness for all, we need to change,” says a mother, whose gay son had attempted suicide.

Meet Nguyen Lang Mong, a woman living in HCMC, whose advice this is to people who face a psychological battle in accepting their LGBTQ+ children.

She is the leader of PFLAG Vietnam (Parents, Families and Friends of LGBTQ+), founded in 2011.

Every week, Mong receives phone calls and messages for help from three or four people with LGBTQ+ children.

At first their typical reaction is to try and make their children "normal."

But by sharing her story and knowledge, she shows them there is nothing wrong with their offspring and that having an LGBTQ+ child is not a shame.

She says: "Many parents don't understand this community and they have deep-rooted prejudices against LGBTQ+. When they know more about their children, they will give up their prejudices and accept them the way they are more easily. It is the most important thing for our kids."

Nguyen Lang Mong (second from right) with members of PFLAG Vietnam at a training course held by ICS Center in 2018. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Lang Mong.

Nguyen Lang Mong (second from right) with members of PFLAG Vietnam at a training course held by ICS Center in 2018. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Lang Mong

Mong’s advice for the parents is drawn from her own struggle in accepting her gay son 11 years ago.

At first she did not believe her son, now 29, was not straight and scolded him for imitating his gay friends. The relationship between mother and son deteriorated and tension escalated for a year.

Then one day she found out her son had tried to commit suicide, which came as a wake-up call to her.

"It freaked me out. I thought I couldn’t keep treating my son that way."

She then began to learn about LGBTQ+ people and realized they were not as "bad and indisciplined" as she had thought.

"If he is happy living the way he truly is, I am happy too."

Mong and her son’s is a typical and heartwarming story of the progress made by Vietnamese society in recent times in accepting the LGBTQ+ community.

Earlier this month the Ministry of Health sent an announcement to provincial and municipal health departments and posted it on the government website. It said being LGBTQ+ "is entirely not an illness", and it "cannot be ‘cured’ nor needs to be ‘cured’ and cannot be changed in any way."

The ministry said medical professionals should not "interfere nor force treatment" on LGBTQ+ people. If any support is to be given to LGBTQ+ people, "it must be in the form of psychological assistance and performed only by those who have knowledge of sexual identities."

Medical professionals should treat LGBTQ+ people with respect and without discrimination, it said.

In an article published on August 24 the British newspaper The Guardian said the announcement is a "victory" for gay rights.

A Transgender Law bill requires people to be given maternity benefits and the right to marry according to their gender identity.

Thus trans men who carry and give birth to babies will be entitled to normal maternity benefits, and transgender people will get all other rights per the law and the Constitution, once they have been acknowledged as transgender, experts told a conference regarding the Transgender Law draft last week.

This progress is made not only at a governmental level but also at a social level.

Earlier this month, the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE) and ICS Center (a Hanoi organization that advocates for rights of LGBTQ+) launched a campaign called "Toi dong y" (rough translation: I agree).

It targeted collecting 250,000 signatures to call for legislation to allow same-sex marriages.

With support from 17 celebrities from various fields such as entertainment, art, journalism, and sports, the campaign says on its official Facebook account that it ended up with one million signatures in 72 hours.

A similar campaign launched 10 years ago got 12,000.

Luong The Huy, director of iSEE, says the campaign has broken all previous records and shows how much Vietnamese society has progressed in 10 years.

A survey by VnExpress in July found 61% of over 2,700 respondents saying they were willing to accept their child's gender as long as the latter were happy, 25% saying they would be shocked and distressed but still accepting and only 14% refusing to accept children who are not cisgender.

A 2017 survey by the Social Life Institute in HCMC found 50.9% of respondents aged 15 to 35 agreeing that Vietnam should allow same-sex marriage; 26.3% of them hesitant about it and only 22.8% opposing it.

Assoc Prof Dr Nguyen Duc Loc, director of the Social Life Institute, says compared to other countries in South East Asia, Vietnam is relatively open to the LGBTQ+ community, and opposition occurs mainly within families of LGBTQ+ people.

10 out of 17 ambassadors of Toi dong y campaign at its launching ceremony on August 10 in HCMC. Photo: VnExpress/Tieu Pham

10 out of 17 celebrity ambassadors of the ‘Toi dong y’ campaign at its launch on August 10, 2022 in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Tieu Pham

Prejudice against LGBTQ+ community in Vietnam

Yet, despite the progress, the LGBTQ+ community does suffer from stigma and discrimination.

According to the Ministry of Health, there are an estimated 480,000 transgender people in Vietnam, but the actual number is much higher because most people tend not to come out.

Transgender people face stigma, prejudice, and discrimination from their own families, at school, at work, and at healthcare centers.

A survey by the Ministry of Health found that nearly 40% of LGBTQ+ respondents have attempted suicide.

One in every three transgender people faced discrimination and prejudice in the previous 12 months.

An understandable fear of stigma and discrimination also prevents transgender people from seeking healthcare-related information and services when they have an illness. Some 18% of them live with HIV and syphilis, 4% of them have never been tested for HIV, and 42% report having serious depression.

According to a 2015 survey by iSEE of 2,362 people from the community, one in every five had been forced to see a doctor for a "cure", and more than 60% were forced to change their appearance and behaviors, and faced psychological pressure.

Linh, 24, a trans woman in Hanoi, faced all of these.

When her father knew she dressed like a woman, he went crazy and threw out all of her clothes. He took Linh to Bach Mai hospital to see a psychologist and forced her to do military service so she could be "straight again."

A few months later her parents took her for exorcism, Linh says.

Giang, 27, a lesbian in Hanoi, recalls: "When my mother found out I was lesbian, she prostrated in front of me and begged me to be ‘normal’. She said it would be easier for her to accept I was a thief or married to a drug addict than this."

Huynh Minh Thao, an LGBTQ+ activist and co-founder of the ICS center, says many LGBTQ+ people are treated badly by their own families. Their parents try to "cure" them through psychiatric treatment and even exorcism.

"These attitudes and behaviors by their family make them feel lonely and many LGBTQ+ people leave home."

Mong says her son has been living happily with his boyfriend for three years, but she still worries they may face discrimination.

Loc says, "The public should look at these issues from the perspective of human rights rather than as the rights of a vulnerable group."

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