By S.V. Welborn.
Historically, East Asia has not been known as a bastion of LGBT+ acceptance. However, those who are paying attention will be pleased to see a growing consciousness when it comes to this issue. Discrimination on the bases of sexuality is slowly withering away the world over, and Vietnam’s adoption of new LGBT+ Health Standards is the latest evidence of this.
In August 2022, the Vietnamese Health Ministry put forth a declaration that LGBT+ status is not indicative of mental illness[i]. Vietnam had already stopped treating it as such long ago, but this is an important ideological statement to explicitly declare same-sex attraction and transgender identity as natural human variance.
The Health Ministry’s declaration is not, however, just ideological rhetoric from government, but also a set of directives for the medical system of Vietnam. These include instructions to improve the propagation of correct information about LGBT+ people to doctors and staff, to treat all patients in an equal manner regardless of orientation or identity, to not consider homosexuality, bisexuality or transgender identity a disease, to not force treatment upon LGBT+ people (i.e. conversion therapy), and, most importantly of all, inspection and review to make sure these directives are being followed[ii].
This is a huge step forward for LGBT+ rights in Asia, making Vietnam one of the most progressive countries on this issue in the region. However, this did not spontaneously materialize overnight. The struggle has been long fought and is ongoing. It wasn’t until 2013 when Vietnam first decriminalized same-sex marriage[iii], and even still it is not officially recognized. In 2015, the overwhelming majority of the Communist Party of Vietnam voted in favor of allowing transgender people to change their sex on legal documents[iv], but only if they have undergone reassignment surgery. Previously, to attain gender-affirming surgeries one’s best option was to travel to Thailand, as they were illegal in Vietnam. This unnecessary and dangerous pilgrimage hasn’t been necessary since 2017[v]. Progress is being made relatively quickly in the grand scale of things, but with inequality regarding marriage, adoption and other issues, there is still a long way to go.
As Communists, we cannot view things in a vacuum, separate from their historical development. Considering the historical background of not just Vietnam, but most developing countries, we should be impressed by the great strides being made not just in the legal sector, but culturally as well. In 2016 according to the ILGA/RIWI Global Attitude Survey on LGBTI People[vi], 45% of respondents supported legalizing gay marriage. Not particularly impressive compared to the over 70% approval in the USA in most recent polls[vii], but the positive trend becomes obvious when we take into account that in 2001, 82% of Vietnamese citizens said “Homosexuality is never legitimate” according to UC Irvine’s World Values Survey[viii]. LGBT+ people in Vietnam still face discrimination, bullying and a lack of legal protection, but such great progress in the right direction is heartening.
Perhaps the increased visibility of LGBT+ people in life and the media is partially to thank for this. The first Gay Pride Parade in Vietnam was only as recent as 2012, with 100 or so people marching[ix]. At the 2022 Pride Parade, thousands flooded the streets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Also contributing to LGBT+ visibility are films, shows and music produced by or about the LGBT+ people. In 2000 a book called A World Without Women (Một Thế Giới Không Có Đàn Bà) was the first novel about gay issues to get any traction in Vietnam and would be adapted into a TV series in 2004. My Best Gay Friends (Bộ ba đĩ thõa), a gay sitcom, was produced in 2012 and received millions of views. In 2014 a film about a musical troupe called Madam Phung’s Last Journey (Chuyến đi cuối cùng của chị Phụng) was released. The film broke the Vietnamese box office records for documentaries[x]. The film Finding Phong (Đi Tìm Phong) was released in 2015 and was more directly about the Trans experience, following a young Trans-woman on her journey of self-discovery. Many films by the LGBT+ community in Vietnam have been shown at film festivals in the USA, France, China, Laos, and more. The success of all this LGBT+ media in Vietnam shows the increasing appetite for such content. Showing LGBT+ people in sympathetic roles goes a long way toward developing understanding among the Cisgender-Heterosexual majority.
Worldwide, the inexorable march towards correct stances on LGBT+ matters continues. In the developing world, as we see with Vietnam and Cuba, LGBT+ Communists and their allies are often leading the way.