The Conviction On Sept. 22, 2016, the Hanoi People’s Court held a first-instance trial  for Vu Van Binh,
The Highs and Lows of the LGBTIQ Struggle in Vietnam
Despite many challenges and hurdles, the LGBTIQ community in Vietnam has achieved a form of success that might make other human rights defenders stand in awe. While the Vietnamese government still views many Civil Social Organizations (CSO) with caution and hostility, CSOs that dedicate their efforts to the LGBTIQ struggle have made some strides in promoting awareness, advocating for some general legal changes, and fostering acceptance from both Vietnamese society and the state.
Currently, the Vietnamese LGBTIQ movement seems to remain strong and is growing. A younger generation of activists has been leading the charge, and this social movement will continue to gain traction and keep momentum for the foreseeable future.
However, many issues remain significant challenges to the movement’s ongoing success and limit the full realization of its goals. These obstacles range from various legal setbacks to the deep-rooted societal stigma embedded in Vietnamese society.
A Brief Look at LGBTIQ History and Vietnamese Culture
A report published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2014 looks at the historical context of the Vietnamese LGBTIQ community. From the report, in ancient Vietnam, sexuality was not seen as taboo but as “wholesome and in harmony with nature.” Likewise, cross-dressing appeared to be commonplace. Men who dressed as women were often referred to as bóng cái in southern Vietnam and đồng cô in the north; these two terms translate into witch doctor in the English language.
The report also adds that the first record of a transgender person in Vietnam was found in the “Complete Annals of the Great Viet” (“Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư”) in the 14th century. It mentions a case of a “woman becoming a man in Nghe An” and another about An Vuong Tuan, a member of the royal family who was “fond of wearing women’s attire.”
It also notes a peculiar adultery case found in the records of an ancient legal text called the “Hồng Đức Thiện Chính Thư,” about two women who lived together. While the final judgment on the case itself could be scrutinized and debated, the report makes it clear that the case did not criticize the homosexual relationship between the two women and that it was not seen as a social evil or taboo.
Through these examples and others, the UNDP report clarifies that while various forms of sexual identity “may have been portrayed as unnatural or sinister” during this period in Vietnam’s history, they were never criminalized. The report states that the first instance of such relationships being seen as a “sin” came from Western literature written by French colonialists.
The report further adds that public stigma about the LGBTIQ community became more commonplace during the twentieth century. Southern Vietnam’s perception of this group of people was highly negative, despite the proliferation of establishments that catered to the LGBTIQ community. Socialists during the revolution did not consider homosexuality and transgenderism criminal acts, even though they held negative perceptions of premarital relations and extramarital affairs.
During the period after the Vietnam War, the report states that the country “did not approve of [any deviation] from gender norms. This perception led to the “confluence of stigma and discriminatory laws [that served] to reinforce the exclusion and marginalization of transgender people,” which led to the unnecessary alienation, exploitation, and suffering of the LGBTIQ community.
The plight of the Vietnamese LGBTIQ community was also worsened by the HIV epidemic in the country. The UNDP report states that the Vietnamese government carried out exclusive discriminatory testing against young male drug users, which led to the neglect of other vulnerable sectors in Vietnamese society. This stigma, which was “based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” forced members of the LGBTIQ community to live “hidden lives,” which made them even more vulnerable to this deadly disease. Over time, HIV has been unfairly linked to the LGBTIQ community in the country.
The report later states that in 2002, Vietnam’s state-run media had branded homosexuality as a “social evil.”
Another study by Tam Nguyen and Holly Angelique titled “Internalized Homonegativity, Confucianism and Self-Esteem at the Emergence of an LGBTQ Identity in Modern Vietnam” argues that Vietnamese who were raised with Confucian values held negative views of the country’s LBGTIQ community. The authors claim that Confucianism, with its strict adherence to family values, gender roles, and conservatism, “predicted negative perceptions and intolerance toward homosexuality.”
Vietnam’s history and social context paint the plight of the country’s LGBTIQ community as one of constant struggle against discrimination, alienation, and shame.
The Current Challenges of the LGBTIQ Movement in Vietnam
The UNDP research and Nguyen and Angelique’s study give context to the struggles faced by modern-day LGBTIQ activists and related CSOs in Vietnam. While significant gains have been made regarding social acceptance and other aspects, many issues remain.
On June 11, 2021, the Asian Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA Asia) released a report titled “Dare to Dream: The ongoing voyage from invisibility to community empowerment and foray into the region for LGBTIQ in Vietnam,” This document highlights the many issues that the Vietnamese LGBTIQ community continues to face, as well as many of the movement’s victories in the social, political, and legal spheres.
The ILGA document states that Vietnam still suffers from the influence of Confucianism “that strongly supports heterosexual and traditional family models of straight men and women,” leading to “subtle discriminations.” An example of this can be found in this 2020 report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) that illustrates the stigma faced by young LBGTIQ Vietnamese in their homes and at school; several Vietnamese children and young adults face verbal harassment, physical violence, and discrimination from their peers and families.
Another issue mentioned by the ILGA is difficulties related to CSO registration. The report states that human rights-related CSOs in Vietnam that register as local non-profit/non-governmental organizations have to pay the government (value added) tax. If they choose to register as limited or social companies instead, they must also pay taxes, according to government regulations. In general, local CSOs face difficulties in the act of registration itself, making it difficult for them to get any donations from international sources because of the Vietnamese government’s imposed restrictions. Likewise, the government has not allocated any funds to CSOs that are community-based organizations.
The LGBTIQ movement also faces legal setbacks in making amendments or passing new laws. This can be seen in their attempt to push the draft of the Law on Sex Transitioning. The report states that this was supposed to be submitted in 2018. However, this was postponed to 2021.
Likewise, there is a lack of an intergenerational link in the movement. The report states that activists who are 35 or older have little representation. The older generation has the experience, connections, resources, and knowledge that younger leaders lack. This issue could lead to various organizational difficulties further down the road.
The Vietnamese government also uses the LGBTIQ movement as a “bargaining chip” to appease the international human rights community. Concerns about the state’s authenticity in allowing the LGBTIQ movement to participate in law-making have been raised. Some activists interviewed in the report state that they are content with this situation because they believe this arrangement benefits the Vietnamese LGBTIQ community. Others are more pessimistic and question whether or not there has been any change in the LGBTIQ situation.
Victories of the LGBTIQ Struggle
Despite the lingering challenges faced by the Vietnamese LGBTIQ movement, ILGA also notes the many positive outcomes the struggle has achieved.
The movement remains strong; its current state is the strongest it has ever been. Despite institutional, conservative, and discriminatory social values that are difficult to change, social and cultural tolerance towards the LGBTIQ community, especially in large cities, is rising.
It is no longer taboo to discuss their issues in the public sphere. Mass public awareness campaigns and traditional and social media use have slowly changed the outdated narrative. Many LGBTIQ allies, such as celebrities and those from other influential sectors of society, have come forward to support the movement, lending its overall strength.
Religious groups, usually portrayed as highly aggressive against the LGBTIQ in the West, have not been combative or discriminatory in Vietnam. Catholics, usually “more conservative,” do not challenge the LGBTIQ movement.
Despite legal setbacks, the movement has still been able to push for the revision of the 2013 Law on Marriage and Family that removed the “prohibition on same-sex wedding ceremonies and cohabitation of samesex couples.” And despite the delay regarding the passing of the draft Law on Sex Transitioning, 2018 marked a historical event in Vietnam that saw members of the National Assembly approach members of the Vietnamese LGBTIQ community for their knowledge, insights, and recommendations on the issue.
CSOs have also implemented projects, such as "Rainbow Schools," that aim to educate parents about the LGBTIQ community and reduce prejudice, fostering a more inclusive and accepting environment for LGBTIQ individuals in Vietnam.
Even Vietnam’s public health sector, which initially saw the LGBTIQ community as the primary source of the country’s HIV epidemic, is now willing to work with the movement to address issues for the entire country, thanks in part to the efforts of international donors and organizations.
The positive outcomes of the Vietnamese LGBTIQ movement did not happen overnight; they are the result of tireless advocacy in the face of once thought insurmountable odds. A community of former pariahs and social outcasts could do the unthinkable and establish the beginnings of long-lasting social change.
The story of the Vietnamese LGBTIQ movement may inspire other Vietnamese human rights defenders and other marginalized communities to continue their fight for the changes they want to achieve. The determination the LGBTIQ movement displays exemplifies the incredible possibilities that emerge when individuals and groups refuse to be silenced. Their remarkable victories should not only be celebrated but should also ignite a collective challenge to continue forging ahead towards a society where every person can experience dignity, acceptance, and the freedom to authentically be themselves in a truly liberated nation.
ILGA Asia’s report can be found here.
- Nga, M. (2021, April 28). LGBT rights activist nominates himself for National Assembly seat. VnExpress International – Latest news, business, travel and analysis from Vietnam. https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/lgbt-rights-activist-nominates-himself-for-national-assembly-seat-4269553.html?ref=thevietnamese.org
- Being LGBT in Asia: Viet Nam Country Report: United Nations Development Programme. UNDP. (2014, August 2). https://www.undp.org/vietnam/publications/being-lgbt-asia-viet-nam-country-report
- Nguyen, Tam & Angelique, Holly. (2017). Internalized Homonegativity, Confucianism and Self-Esteem at the Emergence of an LGBTQ Identity in Modern Vietnam. Journal of Homosexuality. 64. 10.1080/00918369.2017.1345231.
- Nguyen, S. (2021, June 19). Overview of LGBTQ+ rights in Vietnam. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/06/overview-of-lgbtq-rights-in-vietnam/
- ILGA Asia. (2021, June 11). Dare to dream: The ongoing voyage from invisibility to community empowerment, and foray into the region for LGBTIQ in Vietnam. ILGA Asia. https://www.ilgaasia.org/publications/2021/6/11/lgbtq-rights-report-vietnam-dare-to-dream?rq=vietnam
- Human Rights Watch. (2020, February 12). “My Teacher Said I Had a Disease.” Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/02/13/my-teacher-said-i-had-disease/barriers-right-education-lgbt-youth-vietnam