HCMC Dining Guide

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A leap forward?

Recently a surprising piece of news from Vietnam made its way into international press headlines: the Justice Ministry is considering the legalization of gay marriage.

All in all this is a stunning move from a very conservative government whose human rights record is blasted every year, often jails bloggers, brooks no dissent, accuses writers of belonging to supposed 'reactionary groups', violently suppresses ethnic minorities, conducts forced land grabs, and is in the middle of a concerted anti-China propaganda campaign (with the gleeful help of the media) that is turning even children into chest-thumping nationalists. (Just kidding! Please don't deport me!)

The announcement took gay rights activists around the world by surprise, and since there is little transparency in terms of what the Vietnamese government is thinking, it took people here unawares as well. To be sure, it is unlikely that legalization won't actually happen yet, but the fact that it has even been mooted is amazing. No other Asian country has proposed anything like this, and in Islamic-influenced countries like Malaysia and Indonesia homosexuality can still be punished violently.

As I look across the Pacific to my home country, the U.S., I see a nation apparently sliding closer to falling off the deep end; where the debate over same-sex marriage has, bizarrely, become centered around a crappy fast-food chain that specializes in chicken sandwiches. If Vietnam were to legalize gay marriage before the U.S. that would just be embarrassing. One would hope such a move by a developing Asian country, particularly one that has a looong way to go in myriad other social areas, would spur America towards similar action, but in this age of sickeningly partisan politics I doubt that would happen.

But I digress. The Justice Department's proposal is also surprising because the majority of people living here are still very conservative, and not exactly eager to accept homosexuality. Just a few years ago being gay was considered a 'social evil', and it is still largely a taboo topic. In the past gay bars in Saigon have been shut down by the authorities, and support for people who come out can be minimal to non-existent.

There are signs of at least some changes in this area though. Over the weekend the nation's first gay pride parade was held in Hanoi, attracting the eager participation of a number of young Vietnamese and a few foreigners. This event amazed me for two reasons: 1) It took place in Hanoi, the conservative bastion of the country, not Saigon, it's long-haired younger brother. 2) The government did nothing to stop or hinder the parade. Public demonstrations are basically illegal in Vietnam, and oddly enough authorities have broken up anti-China protests that their own propaganda has helped stoke.

Unsurprisingly, the fact that this proposal has come out of the blue, and that its supporters have had free reign, has created suspicions over the real motive of the government's action. In an interview with the Huffington Post, one gay-friendly bar owner in Hanoi wonders if this is all simply meant to distract people from the fact that Vietnam's economy is in serious trouble, among other issues. One also has to wonder how much of an impact the legalization of gay marriage would even have on the people of Vietnam, many of whom hold a very ambivalent attitude towards rules and regulations. (Just watch how well people follow the laws while driving...)

Still, it is impressive enough that legalization is even being talked about. Even though it may go nowhere just yet, this is a sign that Vietnam could potentially be moving closer to entering the 21st century, socially at least. (Well, maybe the 20th - women are still treated like shit.) Will it be a leap forward, or just a baby step towards something else?

1 comment:

  1. I fear that it's a smokescreen for the commie government to pretend that it's being progressive when it continues to oppress the population...

    homophobia and misogyny are strongly linked. vietnam doesn't have the west's history of homophobia, and while women are treated like shit like you say, it's still miles ahead of how women are treated in northeast asian countries, despite them being much more economically advanced

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