Will Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador Help Improve LGBT Rights In Vietnam?

Will Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador Help Improve LGBT Rights In Vietnam?

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(VNRN) - Any new U.S. Ambassador will always attract the attention of Vietnamese everywhere, but when President Barack Obama nominated Asia pro Ted Osius, it generated a little more than the usual high interest. You see, Osius is openly gay. Regardless of whether the nominee’s sexual orientation was a factor, the nomination hopefully will usher in more LGBT rights in Vietnam.

Certainly Osius is qualified to be ambassador. He has served as Deputy Chief of Mission before, in Indonesia from 2009 to 2012. For the past year, he has been an Associate Professor at the National War College.

Osius had been posted in Vietnam previously, from 1997 to 2001, as Political Officer at the Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City and at the Embassy in Hanoi. Note the year: 1997 was when diplomatic relations resumed between the two countries, making Osius among the first to arrive in Vietnam.

Osius and his partner, Clayton Bond, also a Foreign Service officer, are members of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) – the officially recognized organization representing the concerns of gay and lesbian personnel and their families in the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Foreign Commercial Service, Foreign Agricultural Service, and other foreign affairs agencies and offices in the U.S. Government. They relationship was featured on the State Department’s Office of Civil Rights web site in 2010, and again in 2013.

It’s complicated

In Osius’s new post, when it comes to LGBT issues, Vietnam defies characterization. Predominantly Buddhist, the Vietnamese people don’t have a deep-seated, religious-based opposition to homosexuality, but open acceptance has not been the norm either — although that has slowly improved at least in the cities. In the country at large, homosexuality is thought of as an illness, a deviance, or a little bit of both. Reactions to knowing someone is gay range from pity to hatred and everything in between.

A prominent psychologist interviewed in 2009 opined that gays and lesbians would rather be normal but “there is to now no medication.” A 20-year-old gay man was taken by his parents for blood tests and psychiatric help. An 18-year-old girl was tied up and locked in her room to “cure” her after her parents found out she had a female lover. News stories still use the term “bị đồng tính” — or “suffering from homosexuality” — when reporting on same-sex relations.

Dr. Nguyen Anh Thuan (Nguyễn Anh Thuận), who came out to a major newspaper in 2010, recounted the experience to TIME magazine, “The reaction to my coming out was incredibly positive — the public loved it, but the media still plays a large role in demonizing homosexuality.”

Homosexuality “is often referred to as ‘immoral’ and gay victims of violent crime are often cast as the architects of their own misfortune,” Thuan added.

At the official, governmental level, it’s also complicated. There is no legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Vietnam, but gay couples have been holding weddings here and there.

In May 2012, two young men invited guests and families to their wedding in southern Kien Giang province, near the Cambodian border. The countryside wedding attracted the curiosity of neighboring villages who flocked over just to watch, blocking traffic all over town. On the grounds that homosexual marriages were not recognized, local authorities fined the couple VND 200,000, or US$10. The couple paid and went back to their home in Ho Chi Minh City.

Progress

As soon as news got out, however, other news outlets published opinions pointing out that it’s homosexual marriages that are banned, not weddings. The local ward president, interviewed for that story, countered, “But there isn’t another way to fine them!” — a very telling statement.

At the same time, there were signs of progress. 2012 saw the first Viet Pride parade on bicycles in Hanoi. The second parade took place in 2013, both without violence.

In 2013, the government issued Decree 110, removing any fine for holding a same-sex wedding, while stopping short of allowing same-sex marriages.

Many everyday Vietnamese still consider homosexuality abnormal. News reports of gay and lesbian couples still carry a tone of disbelief or curiosity.

A story in an entertainment website, reprinted in the magazine published by the Lawyer’s Association of Vietnam, for example, warned that ”Vietnamese show biz abuses homosexual elements for attention.” News stories still report on same-sex weddings as sensational events. An official of the Women’s Union was quoted just last month saying same-sex marriages are “against nature, don’t guarantee the continuation of lineage as the function of the family, not to mention other bad effects.”

With the arrival of an openly gay ambassador, and one from the country Vietnamese pay the most attention to, things may change. Certainly LGBT rights has not been the only dimension in Vietnam-U.S. dialogues, and will not be, no matter who the Ambassador is. Foreign diplomats also have only limited influence on the host country’s policies. Osius himself, for example, was deputy chief of mission in Indonesia, but the level of LGBT rights in that country has not changed much.

The hope in Vietnam is that, at the least, seeing and hearing and working with a gay professional man at the highest level of his profession, will nudge people’s thinking in the right direction.

The better hope is that an ambassador who knows human rights not just at the professional level, but at the personal level as well, will achieve concrete results with Hanoi on all aspects of it.

Related article:
Will Vietnam Legalize Gay Marriage?