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LGBTQ people detail trauma from pressure to change gender identity

By Dang Khoa, Xanh Le   May 28, 2022 | 08:50 pm PT
LGBTQ people detail trauma from pressure to change gender identity
Cyclists decorated with balloons and rainbow flags take part in Vietnam’s first ever gay pride parade on a road in Hanoi on August 5, 2012. Photo by AFP
Nguyen Viet Anh was 25 when he told his parents he was gay. They responded by forcing him to see doctors, hoping to "cure" him.

The resident of HCMC's District 5 says he will never forget the day when he came out to them three years ago.

"My father got angry, and my mother burst into tears. They believed I had mental health issues."

They even prevented him from talking to his younger brother, worrying he would "transmit the gay disease to him."

He moved out and decided to stay out of touch with his family, which has kept rejecting him.

Though WHO stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental illness and took it off the International Statistical Classification of Diseases in 1990, many LGBTQ people in Vietnam are still being rejected, stigmatized and discriminated against even by their own families.

More than 60 percent of them said they were scolded or verbally abused by their families, according to a 2015 study by the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), an NGO group that works for the rights of minority groups.

Many of them were subjected to intense pressure from their families to visit doctors or so-called reparative therapists for therapy or spiritual counseling, believing these "treatments" could convert their children's sexual orientation back to being straight.

Nguyen Thanh Minh of Hanoi, who came out to his mother at 22, said she forced him to see a telepathist to "dispel" all homosexual thoughts in him.

"The telepathist told her that a long-lost family member died when he was young, and put a curse on me," Minh says.

Though his mother did not believe the man’s claim, she still considered homosexuality "abnormal" and wanted him to get checked at a hospital.

"I told them that my health is fine and it can’t be cured. But because of the constant pressure, I still went to see the doctor to make my mother happy."

He later got one of his friends at Bach Mai Hospital to come and explain to his parents that being gay is not a disease, and they have slowly accepted him for who he is.

Like Minh, Nguyen Quynh Nghi, a lesbian in HCMC, faced a backlash from her parents and relatives after cutting her long hair.

"My father thought I had a psychological disorder. Relatives on my father’s side do not want to talk or even come close to me for bringing shame and dishonor to the family.

"It is like I am invisible and don’t exist in their eyes."

She has moved out of her house to avoid discrimination from her family.

According to the iSEE study, more than 62 percent of LGBTQ people were forced by their relatives to change their appearance and gestures, and 13-14 percent said they were physically assaulted, confined or restrained and told to leave the house.

Nguyen Nhu, a transgender in HCMC who now identifies as a man, still remembers vividly what happened when he revealed his gender identity at 15.

"They beat me a lot. My father even took me to a hospital for a chromosome test."

Though the test result showed there was nothing unusual, his aunts beat him, removed his shirt, verbally abused him, and threw him out of the house.

"I had no choice and had to grab a knife to defend myself. I told them I would stab anyone who hurt me."

He says his high school years were a nightmare because his father would wake him up in the middle of the night, pull him off the bed and hit him repeatedly.

"Even now I sleep in a fetal position and avoid straightening my leg because of this childhood trauma."

According to Luong The Huy, iSEE's director, many parents' first reaction when learning their children are gay is to assume they are sick and need to be cured by doctors, therapists or andrologists.

Vu Duc Cong, an andrologist at the Men's Health Clinic in HCMC, said he gets around 20 cases of parents bringing their children to the clinic to cure their "gay disease" every year.

"Many of them ask if we can do any tests to see if their children are gay."

A 2014, study by UNDP found that 29 percent of people believed it was an illness or contagious disease, 54 percent believed it was caused by a lack of parental care/love/guidance and 48 percent believed LGBTQ+ people could be "cured."

The common misperceptions of homosexuality were that it was caused by biological changes during fetal development and psychological disorders.

Not too long ago being gay was considered a medical disorder and mental illness. The American Psychiatric Association listed it as a "sociopathic personality disturbance" in 1952.

In 1968, it recategorized it as a form of sexual "deviation."

The classification of homosexuality as a mental illness was finally removed in 1973, but the stigma has continued.

In 2019, the American Psychoanalytic Association apologized for previously treating homosexuality as a mental illness, saying its past errors contributed to discrimination and trauma for LGBTQ people.

In the U.S., many members of the LGBTQ communities who once went through gay "conversion therapy" to try and change their sexual or gender identity said it stressed them out and some even planted suicidal thoughts.

Conversion therapy is currently banned in 20 U.S. states.

Anh still cannot shake off the shame and anguish he felt when his parents told a doctor he was gay and needed to be "cured."

"They even wanted the doctor to do a test to see if my testosterone level was okay. I felt like my body and my identity were being socially excluded."

Some LGBTQ members, on the other hand, are fortunate enough to receive support from their families and live a happy life with the person they love.

Kha Ai, a 28-year-old transgender woman, is a prime example.

Thanks to the overwhelming support from both her biological parents and her husband's family, she tied the knot with Tri Nguyen in the presence of both sides in central Khanh Hoa Province on April 30.

"It was a day filled with emotions," she recalls.

In recent years, Vietnam has made legislative changes toward increased acceptance of LGBT rights. In 2013, the government abolished fines on same sex marriages while a year later the parliament repealed the constitutional provision defining marriage as a union between a man and woman.

Since 2015, the law has allowed same sex weddings but has yet to recognize same sex marriage. Also in November of that year, Vietnam passed a landmark law for those who have undergone reassignment to register under a new gender.

"We'll adopt children to have them running around the house like any other family," Ai said. "I am glad that more and more people are becoming more open-minded and accepting of LGBTQ people, and Vietnam is supporting our rights."

 
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