The emerging LGBT movement in Vietnam: lessons in negotiating legal spaces

Tu-Anh Hoang

Thirty years ago, before the economic reform which is known as Doi Moi in Vietnam in 1986, it was hard for people who know the politics in Vietnam to imagine or even think about the existence of civil society in the country, let alone a civil society movement. Today the Vietnamese government not only recognises the existence of thousands of registered and unregistered NGOs and groups but also acknowledges the contribution these organisations make to the development of the country. This emergent civil society includes LGTB groups which until the 1990s were invisible.

Homosexuality though not illegal, used to be seen as social-evil together with other illegal phenomena such as drug use, gamble and prostitution. A HIV epidemic helped make the LGBT community visible and known to the media and public. However, the government’s health risk management approach did not help empower the community to affirm their rights on sexual orientation and identity nor reduce related stigma and discriminations. Much of the public and policy makers still think about homosexuality and transgender as phenomena that affect some (unlucky) individuals and if society keeps a close eye on this, they can control and somehow eliminate these ‘deviants’.

However, in 2012 the VietPride bicycle rally with rainbow flags on the streets in Ha Noi and the Ministry of Justice’s proposal to revise the Marriage and Family Law to take into account same-sex relationship awakened the country. LGBT people are no longer isolated and marginalised groups but have organised and engage successfully with media and policy makers.

As a result of this engagement Vietnam became the first country in Asia to discuss same-sex marriage at the national level. The revised Marriage and Family law that passed on 19 June 2014 does not recognise these rights. This is a setback not just for the movement in Vietnam but also for other groups in the region who had hoped to use the legalisation in Vietnam to open the door in other countries. While this is disappointing it should be seen in perspective of a turbulent political context and process with setbacks and successes. The movement with the LGBT organisations and their supporters is still strong. Their engagement and negotiation abilities are not diminished.

The recent report Negotiating public and legal spaces: the emergence of an LGBT movement in Vietnam – co-authored by researchers from the Institute for Social Development and the Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population, a local NGO in Hanoi – documents the process of the emergence of the movement.

Three strategies made the engagement and negotiation possible:

Depoliticising the LGBT movement to create space for civil association and engagement
Creating emotion is considered a key term in the mobilisation for both public presentation in VietPride and the legalization of same-sex cohabitation and marriage. Rights for love, for having a family and for pursuing happiness are centred in the arguments of LGBT activists and groups. Instead of criticising sexual politics, slogans and messages are adapted to somehow match with the country development goals regarding equity and well-being. This strategy is criticised by some activists as ‘too safe’ and may hamper the linkage of LGBT movement with other human rights and democracy movement in Vietnam, it is recognised by majority that this is relevant and effective in current Vietnam political context.

Broad rights-based framework on LGBT rather than employing a limited special interest LGBT group framework
The number of organisations and groups working exclusively or focally on same-sex relationship in Vietnam is still modest and most unregistered, which imply the limit in term of legal power. However, this disadvantage is made up of a coalition with other well-established and registered organisations working on gender, domestic violence and sexuality in Vietnam. This linkage is possible through a shared broad framework on gender equity and human rights. This coalition does not only bring more legal power to LGBT movement but also makes it more acceptable to the public and policy makers.

Building positive wholesome images of LGBT
This is a key strategy of the LGBT rights movement in Vietnam. LGBT activists see this as characteristic that distinguishes their movement from the work of HIV. While this strategy seems successful, the positive images and stories of mainly young, healthy, middle-class, university-degree not reflect the wholeness and diversity of LGBT communities.

The strategy of depolitisation might be reconsidered by LGBT groups and their network of partners. What’s important to keep in mind is that this broad rights based network is still there in spite of this setback. The friends of the LGBT activists are still their friends even though their enemies might still be there. The image of LGBT today is also much more positive and diverse than it was a few years ago. LGBT are no longer portrayed as sick social deviants; instead images of young wholesome LGBT are found in the official and on social media. It is likely to be a long process. Vietnamese are probably the world’s experts at thinking strategically, playing a long game and winning unlikely wars. Losing battles along the way is part of this path and will not change the determination of the LGBT movements and their friends for equal rights. In fact it may fuel it.

This blog was written by Tu-Anh Hoang as part of the Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme.

Read other recent blogs by the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme:

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