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Outed, Shamed, and Unfairly Treated: Harassment of LGBTQ+ is Driving Them Away from Vietnam's Public Office
Despite the country's legislative changes towards queer and trans rights in recent years, professionals of minority gender and sexuality in Vietnam’s public sector are still facing discrimination, hurting the very institutions that are pushing them out.
Talking with The Vietnamese Magazine, Oai**, a kindergarten teacher in Vietnam's Khanh Hoa Province, recalls how both her personal and professional lives came crashing down on a summer day in 2018. At the time, she was just a few months into her first queer relationship. Oai and a "tomboy" (local slang for a trans man or a woman with masculine gender expression) tried to keep things clandestine, but they could not keep it hidden for long; right before summer break, a neighbor spotted them together and outed Oai to her sister.
That neighbor also happened to be Oai's coworker. "I know that a gay relationship would not be supported [in this town], and it would affect my job immensely," Oai stated.
In the following days, Oai could feel the shifting atmosphere in her workplace. "I'm not sure who broke the news, but everyone started scrutinizing me. Ultimately, one female coworker confronted me and asked if I was dating a 'tomboy,' which almost made me burst into tears," she recalled. The stress also took a toll on her relationship, and as soon as the school year ended, she fled to her friend's house in another province. Looking back, Oai remembered thinking, "Maybe I should leave my hometown for good."
Vietnam is emerging as one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia, with a lively private sector that provides many opportunities for workers. However, public sector jobs in the country are still highly regarded as a safe bet, with stable state-funded salaries and prospects of lifetime employment perks that can lead to an "ideal" life for young people.
Despite recent moves to weed out underperforming positions and end lifetime employment contracts, the government remains the biggest employer in the country, with 4.5 million workers, or 8.4% of the workforce, still on the state payroll as of 2021, according to the International Labour Organization.  This rate is three times higher than that of Singapore - the country with the most effective government in the world, according to the World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicator. 
In recent years, a rising number of youths have voiced their aversion to public servant jobs, citing low wages, nepotism, cronyism, lack of training, and unclear promotion paths as their reasons.   For LGBTQ+ workers, their situation is even worse; the enduring stigma towards the LGBTQ+ community is nurturing toxic work environments and discriminatory practices, making their work lives miserable and causing them to leave the public sector in droves.
Another source that spoke with The Vietnamese Magazine was Nguyen*, a Hanoi-based writer who identifies as a gay man. Nguyen was in the middle of his bachelor’s program in journalism when he was offered a copy-editing apprenticeship at a publicly-funded newspaper in Hanoi through references from his father.
Although his father already knew and accepted his son’s gender identity, Nguyen said working in the same office with him was more of a bane than a boon. “Having my dad working there frightened me even more; if I had been found out, my dad’s career would also be ruined,” he said, adding that his father warned him beforehand about the general distaste towards queer people in the office.
Nguyen thought keeping a low profile would keep him safe. Yet, working in an all-male department, Nguyen heard homophobic and misogynistic jokes against people’s looks and personal lives daily. His colleagues also pressured him to smoke, and drink to prove himself a “real man.” Upon Nguyen's refusal, one coworker made a snappy remark: “Refusing drinks, what are you, a faggot?”
Remaining silent, a rumor about him being gay spread and Nguyen found it harder to handle the toxicity. He recalled wanting to call in sick every morning. Seven months into the internship, he discovered that his contract was not renewed––the result of a performance review meeting he was not allowed to attend.
Nguyen believes that his lack of engagement with the homophobic jokes might have cost him his job. “I was surprised as no one had ever made negative remarks about my performance in the past,” he recalled. “To survive in that environment, you have to play along with that kind of talk.”
Looking back, Nguyen said he did not report the homophobic remarks to the personnel department as he was “not sure how it would be handled.” As no reporting mechanism for harassment against LGBTQ+ people has been codified, his one chance would be “phê bình và tự phê bình” (criticism and self-criticism) meetings––a process along the Vietnamese Communist Party’s line where workers are encouraged to give their views on the work performance and lifestyle of a colleague, including themselves.
However, for the harassed, these confrontations do not always bring the desired result. “The boss still has the final say,” says Lan**, a former editor at a state-run newsroom in Ho Chi Minh City, who recalled hearing his superiors repeatedly picking on a colleague’s sexuality during these tell-all conclaves.
Following the watershed decisions to decriminalize same-sex marriage and codify the rights of transgender people into the Civil Code in 2015, Vietnam was seen as relatively progressive on LGBTQ+ issues in Southeast Asia.
However, further pushes for LGBTQ+ rights, including legal recognition for same-sex unions as well as a Gender Affirmation Law to allow legal sex changes, have been stalled at discrete stages of the lawmaking process for years. (Note: A draft of the Gender Affirmation Law has reached the last round of consideration and could be codified by Vietnam's National Assembly in 2024.)
Meanwhile, public employers often ignore calls for changes toward LGBTQ+-friendly workplaces from workers, and an aversion towards the LGBTQ+ community still manifests itself in various forms, according to Tran*, a graphic designer identifying as a bisexual woman who used to work at a public university in District 7, Ho Chi Minh City.
During official university events and anniversary gatherings, Tran was the odd one out in her button-down shirts and dress pants. Although she made sure to dress smartly, she did not feel right wearing the traditional ao dais and maxi dresses her fellow female colleagues donned.
Tran also stands out in her everyday office setting, disobeying the workplace dress code, which requires female workers to wear dresses on several days of the week. "I wore pants to work every day," she says. "My supervisor seemed to accept that, as he understood that creative people need certain freedoms."
However, her style attracted unwanted attention from her colleagues: Tran recalled some female coworkers taking her cordial demeanor as flirting and shunning her afterwards, even when she made no mention of her bisexuality to them. "I don't present myself as the usual 'soft' woman, and people started gossiping about why I look like a man," Tran said.
She also believes her clothing choice cost her the opportunity to represent her school at the annual student recruitment tour in 2020, which would have meant a big career progress for her. When Tran confronted a superior about why a person with less experience was selected over her to host the graphic design panel at the event, he gave her a convoluted answer that boiled down to her not looking "professional" enough. "I felt infuriated and disrespected," she said of the situation. "My capability should have been judged based on my work, not how I present myself."
While at the institution, Tran attempted to implement a gender diversity training program for the university staffers and students. Her offers were repeatedly met with silence from the university's leaders.
Tran is taking unpaid leave to pursue a master's degree in Europe. However, returning to the same workplace after her studies is not an attractive option for Tran; staying in Europe or finding another job in Vietnam are among her choices. "Staying in this environment for too long would kill my creativity," she says.
Tran and Nguyen are just two of a number of LGBTQ+ people leaving hostile workplaces in the public sector for other less restrictive environments.
Around 40,000 employees, or 2% of the public workforce, have left the public sector since 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs said in October 2022.  According to Nguyen Duy Thang, the department's deputy minister, low wages, heavy workloads, and blunders in "[the Communist Party] political and ideological training" for public workers are the main contributing factors.  However, LGBTQ+ workers have also pointed out another facet of the problem: a work culture that is in dire need of inclusivity.
Recalling her years of working at the public kindergarten, Oai said that the experience was "tense" and unfriendly for LGBTQ+ workers, making it hard for them to stay. "Most fellow teachers in the L.G.B.T. community that I know of have quit public schools due to its rigidness and constraints on workers," Oai stated.
The root cause is a lack of acknowledgement of gender and sexual diversity, says Binh Le, an activist and director of development consultancy firm ECUE. "An enterprise's creativity will be impaired when diversity is not recognized [within it.] The growth of the enterprise will take a hit as well," he said during a panel talk on gender diversity in the workplace in October 2022. 
In recent years, Vietnamese lawmakers have made visible efforts to recognize the rights of minorities in the workplace. A 2019 amendment to the country's Labor Code defined "labor discrimination" for the first time, including protection against harassment on the grounds of gender, marital status, and pregnancy, among other things.  In October, The Ministry of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs started an online survey to corroborate the state of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community in Vietnam, which would serve as grounds to "amend law and policies on gender equality." 
However, the legal system still has no specific recognition of sexuality and gender-diverse people in the workplace. The 2006 Gender Equality Law, which details acts of discrimination and accompanying penalties, exclusively describes "gender equality" in a male/female binary. 
"The current framework on gender is a binary system, which excludes a large number of LGBTQ+ people," said Binh. "To include them, I think we need to change the perspective on gender, which includes lawmakers and every one of us." 
As they wait for the changes to trickle down, workers champion LGBTQ+ rights from the bottom up. After returning from her summer getaway, Oai decided to stay at her job and face the rumors head-on. She invited her colleagues to the local Pride Parade that she helped organize and brought some of her queer friends to help with the school's activities. Following her efforts, "the colleagues trusted me more and started speaking positively of the LGBTQ+ community," she recalled.
Nevertheless, Oai's boldness is the exception rather than the rule. For many LGBTQ+ workers, staying silent remains the most feasible option to keep their jobs. Meanwhile, those who have opted out are not looking back.
In 2018, Nguyen quit journalism school and pivoted to studying IT shortly after the distressing experience at the state newspaper. Having just completed his IT bachelor's degree, Nguyen said he is still working on his dream of being an independent writer. He is currently sending his “detective novel with a queer lead" out to various publishers. When asked whether he would consider contributing to a state newspaper, Nguyen answered without hesitation, "I dread having to work in such an unfair environment ever again."
* This source asked to be referred to by their last name, not first name, to protect their privacy.
** This source's name was changed to protect their privacy.
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- Ibid 8
- Ibid 3
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