The Vietnamese Magazine’s “Vietnam Insight” introduces background information on political and human rights issues in contemporary Vietnam.
Unlike other human rights issues, LGBTQ+ rights are among an extremely few issues in which Vietnam is not widely considered notorious.
For example, a famous travel blog ranks Vietnam 87 out of 150 countries in its index on safe destinations for LGBTQ+ travellers , cited by prominent media outlets such as CNN, USA Today, and The Guardian. While this number might not seem impressive, it is essential to remember that Vietnam was ranked 137 out of 167 countries in The Economist’s democracy index  and at the bottom in Southeast Asia.
This means that Vietnam’s handling of LGBTQ+ issues is not as alarming compared to how it handles other human rights. In a 2015 article, NBC News reported that when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, Vietnam can even be considered more progressive than the United States. 
However, this does not mean that Vietnam is a paradise for LGBTQ+ people.
According to a recent report published by the Asia branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, many people in the Vietnamese LGBTQ+ community feel like the government is taking advantage of LGBTQ+ rights in Vietnam as compensation for other violations of human rights.
But what is the reality of LGBTQ+ rights in Vietnam? What rights do LGBTQ+ people have? Is the Vietnamese public and government accepting of LGBTQ+ people? What are some issues that LGBTQ+ people in Vietnam still face? These questions are answered in this article as we walk you through a brief overview of the LGBTQ+ community’s situation in Vietnam.
Are same-sex relationships criminalized?
No. Even though same-sex relationships were banned in Vietnam in the early 2000s, the government decriminalized such relationships in 2013.
In 2000, the law first mentioned same-sex relationships in legal documents. The Law on Marriage and Family was amended in 2000 to incorporate a ban on same-sex cohabitation and same-sex marriage, making it primarily illegal to have a same-sex relationship.
Under these regulations, same-sex couples who attempted to organize a wedding ceremony, and people participating in these ceremonies, could get fined by the authorities. However, this law did not crack down on same-sex couples who did not co-habit or attempted to get married, even though the police frequently raided many LGBTQ+ friendly establishments.
In the following years, Vietnam also outlawed various forms of same-sex relationships, such as the adoption of children by same-sex couples or surrogacy and same-sex marriages to foreigners abroad.
The situation got better in 2012, as the then-Minister of Justice Ha Hung Cuong expressed disapproval of the existing legal discrimination of LGBTQ+ people. It was the first time a high-ranked Vietnamese government official publicly talked about the LGBTQ+ community in a non-discriminatory tone.
In 2013, same-sex cohabitation and wedding ceremonies were decriminalized in Vietnam.
Can same-sex couples get married?
No. Up until now, the law in Vietnam does not recognize same-sex marriages.
However, as mentioned above, co-habitation among same-sex couples is now permitted, in addition to wedding ceremonies.
Can transgender people undergo gender transition procedures?
In principle, yes. However, the situation in Vietnam is more complicated.
In 2008, a law in Vietnam said gender affirmation surgeries were forbidden for “people whose gender is already correct”. It means that while gender transition procedures were available for intersex people who were thought to have gender defects, they were banned for transgender people who were thought to have no gender issues.
The situation got better as the country passed a change to the Civil Code in 2015 recognizing the rights to gender transition, official recognition of transgender people in Vietnam, making it one of the most progressive countries in Southeast Asia LGBTQ+ rights.
Although this law was supposed to be implemented by 2017, the reality is that transgender people still faced extreme hardships in accessing gender transition procedures or getting their name and gender changed on paper.
This was due to the inefficiency of lawmakers, who failed to take into account various specific details on transition procedures. For example, they could not detail the eligibility criteria for pursuing gender transition, the criteria for health providers to accommodate gender transition procedures, or the circumstances in which transgender people could legally change their name or gender on paper, among various other considerations.
Therefore, even though transgender people technically could undergo gender transition in Vietnam, it remains extremely inaccessible.
Can transgender people get married?
Yes, but there are some additional issues.
Article 37 of the Civil Code states that “Individuals who have undergone gender transition have the right and obligation to change their civil status, and have the civil rights in accordance with this Code and other related regulations.”
This means that transgender people, after successfully changing their gender on paper, could get married to people of the opposite gender. For example, a transgender woman (male to female) could marry someone legally recognized as male. A transgender man (female to male) could get married to someone legally recognized as female.
As same-sex marriage is not legally mandated in Vietnam, transgender people cannot marry people of the same gender after the transition. Thus, for instance, a transgender woman cannot marry someone lawfully recognized as female and vice versa.
However, as mentioned above, the recognition of transgender people and their legal transition have not been implemented in practice.
Therefore, even though transgender people can marry someone of the opposite gender after transitioning, they still cannot get married and have their marriage legally recognized in practice.
Is there anti-discrimination law to protect LGBTQ+ people?
Up to now, there is no anti-discrimination law explicitly aimed at protecting LGBTQ+ people.
Is Vietnamese society accepting of LGBTQ+ people?
Even though the law in Vietnam has been more friendly towards LGBTQ+ people (or at least in principle) and the government has been pledging to improve the conditions of the community, LGBTQ+ people in Vietnam still face tremendous discrimination from society and pressure from their families to conform to a “normal” heteronormative life.
For example, there is an issue of homosexual individuals marrying people of different gender due to the pressure from either society or their family. Homosexual individuals also engage in marriage arrangements with other homosexual individuals of a different gender to please their families on both sides.
Due to the government’s inefficiency in drafting regulations for transgender people, undergoing hormone therapy or other related medical procedures remains extremely difficult and dangerous, not to mention very costly.
LGBTQ+ adults are not the only ones facing hardship in their social life. LGBTQ+ students and children in Vietnam also reported violence and discrimination. Oftentimes when students come out as LGBTQ+ people to their family, teachers or friends, they are told that they have “a disease.”
While Vietnamese society is becoming more open and accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, it can be seen that it is still generally tough for many LGBTQ+ individuals to live a happy and fulfilling life.
Are there LGBTQ+ politicians or lawmakers?
So far, there are no known openly LGBTQ+ politicians or lawmakers in Vietnam who hold office in the National Assembly or the local People’s Committee in different regions – the most crucial legislative organs in Vietnam. In Vietnam’s conservative political climate, even the existence of women in Vietnamese politics is scarce.
The 2021 elections for the National Assembly and the local People’s Committee in Hanoi saw the appearance of Luong The Huy, the first openly gay candidate running for both offices. He is also an independent non-party candidate. At age 32, Huy is much younger than the typical member of the National Assembly or the People’s Committee.
Unfortunately, despite the enthusiastic support from young people, Huy did not win in both elections this year.
There are very few notable non-governmental organizations which aim to further LGBTQ+ rights in Vietnam. The Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (ISEE) is currently directed by Luong The Huy in Hanoi and the ICS Center in Saigon.
In general, the voice of LGBTQ+ people in politics and policymaking is still meager. Because of this, LGBTQ+ issues remain in the “non-priority” bracket of the country’s legislation. As LGBTQ+ people remain unheard of , it is not surprising that the government is primarily inefficient in making decisions related to the community.
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