Gay taboo turns to pride in Vietnam

Communist Vietnam is considering legalising same-sex marriage, which would catapult it to the fore of gay rights in Asia, where traditional values dominate many societies and sodomy is illegal in some.

While homosexuality was once viewed as a "social evil" in the authoritarian nation, it is slowly shedding its taboo status.

In the most visible sign yet of change, about 100 cyclists waving rainbow flags pedalled through Hanoi on Sunday for Vietnam's first ever gay pride parade, shouting: "We support same-sex marriage".

Next year, lawmakers in the one-party state are set to amend the country's marriage legislation and the justice minister said recently they would consider including same-sex couples in the law for the first time.

The discussion is at an early stage and experts say the changes will likely stop short of legalising gay marriage.

But they may allow for civil unions, or develop some kind of legal protection for same-sex couples who cohabit or wish to adopt children, which would put Vietnam ahead of its regional neighbours in progress on gay rights.

Hanoi is frequently criticised by international watchdogs for human rights abuses, making it seem an unlikely champion for the region's Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community.

"No country in Southeast Asia -- even Thailand -- has proposed gay marriage for official discussion so (Vietnam's move) is quite a surprise for many people," sociologist Le Quang Binh told AFP.

But he pointed out that unlike Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, Vietnam does not have powerful social groups that are vocal in their opposition to gay rights issues for religious reasons.

"Vietnam is actually quite a distinctive case -- we would say that we're lucky," said Binh, who has headed several research projects on lesbian and gay issues.

Le Huong, 22, a lesbian who has been with her girlfriend for two years but has not come out to her family, said social pressure was the biggest problem for members of Vietnam's small but increasingly visible LGBT community.

"I feel very sad... I feel very guilty. I don't feel guilty because I fell in love with a girl, but I feel guilty because I cannot be honest with my mum," said Huong, who asked for her and her girlfriend's names to be changed.

While it is not illegal, homosexuality has long been a taboo in the communist country, where Confucian social mores -- with their emphasis on tradition and family -- still dominate.

Huong's girlfriend, Nguyen Thi Hoa, has also not come out to her family, fearing that it would expose them to tremendous opposition from neighbours and friends who view homosexuality as a disease.

But they are hopeful that could change if Vietnam does amend the marriage law -- and say that if it does happen, they want to adopt children together.

"Beside adopting a child, only marriage would recognise and prove love. When I have a marriage licence (I will be able to) prove that there's nothing wrong with my love," Hoa said.

The only other countries in the Asia-Pacific region where same-sex marriage is even on the agenda are Australia and New Zealand -- the latter already allows civil unions and lawmakers there are set to vote soon on legalising gay marriage.

But both Myanmar and Laos recently held gay pride parades, indicating that LGBT activists and supporters are becoming more assertive about demanding rights in some parts of Southeast Asia.

Taiwan is the host of Asia's biggest gay pride parade, attracting tens of thousands every year, although acceptance of homosexuality is still much lower than the United States and Europe, according to some surveys.

There has also been a resurgence of interest in the issue in conservative Singapore -- where gay sex is illegal but laws are rarely enforced, and some 15,000 people gathered recently to show their support for tolerance.

Phil Robertson, Human Right Watch's Asia deputy director, said the dynamic in Vietnam was similar to Singapore.

"It is a social issue, it is not seen as something that threatens (the government's) stability," he said.

Over the last few years, Vietnam's normally tightly-controlled media has been given free rein to report on gay rights issues -- including a string of symbolic same-sex marriage ceremonies and the new debate on the marriage law.

For sociologist Binh, Vietnam is most likely to be embracing LGBT rights as a pragmatic response to the growing number of cohabiting gay couples, but he said that whatever the motivation, it could only be positive for the country as a whole.

"When people accept the difference in sexual orientation, it might be easier for them to accept the other kind of difference -- like religion, belief, ethnicity," he said.

"The debate is important, it is not just about same sex marriage, but very much about social values, about being tolerant of differences."

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