OPINION: How did Vietnam become the Asian leader in LGBT rights, and how does the Philippines compare?03.10.2016 Society
How did the one-party, semi-authoritarian state of Vietnam become an unwitting leader in LGBT rights in our Southeast Asian region, and how does its politics on LGBT rights compare with ours here in the Philippines?
By Nicole CuUnjieng
Portions of this content were originally published by the author in The Manila Times on 5/11/13 and 06/30/13.
Vietnam: Overturning barriers in just a few years through social campaign
Vietnam’s Health Ministry recommended that same-sex marriage be made legal in 2013, and just last year in 2015 the country lifted the ban on same-sex marriage. While allowing for homosexual marriage is not the same as offering the full legal protections enjoyed under heterosexual unions, this is deeply significant, as only New Zealand in the entire Asia-Pacific has fully legalized gay marriage. How did the one-party, semi-authoritarian state of Vietnam become an unwitting leader in LGBT rights in our Southeast Asian region, and how does its politics on LGBT rights compare with ours here in the Philippines?
After the Vietnamese government began considering a move to recognize same-sex marriages in July 2012, it reviewed the Law on Marriage and Family on April 16, 2013, and the Health Ministry submitted the recommendation for legalization. At the hearing in Hanoi, the Health Ministry cited the need to promote the health and human rights of the Vietnamese LGBT population. According to The Atlantic, the Deputy Health Minister, Nguyen Viet Tien, told the lawmakers assembled: "As human beings, homosexuals have the same rights as everyone else to live, eat, love, and be loved."1 According to Pink News, Nguyen Viet Tien also stirringly told the government that everyone has the right to “live with what one actually has.”2
Nguyen Viet Tien referenced research that a minority rights activist group, Institute for Social and Economic Environment (iSee), conducted, which found that 90% of the 1,800 LGBT individuals polled had experienced homophobia and transphobia; 86% of those polled felt unable to come out; 15% had been verbally abused by their own families; and others reported that they had been forced to undergo ‘gay cure’ therapy. These hostile conditions, Nguyen Viet Tien insightfully noted, pose ready, potential problems for the physical as well as mental health of the Vietnamese LGBT community. These views are not Nguyen Viet Tien’s alone. According to The Atlantic, “in addition to the health minister's statement, several other provincial governments and unions have publically expressed support for either full marriage rights or some form of legal recognition of same-sex partnerships.”3
How is it that Vietnam, a country frequently and consistently attacked for its poor human rights record, was the first country in Asia to move in this way toward considering legalizing same-sex marriage?
Given Vietnam’s consistent ranking near the bottom of international surveys of press freedom, it is moving to witness such openness to change and the revision of entrenched norms.
The LGBT community in Vietnam was marginalized up until recently, but changes in attitude in the legal and public spheres have been fast coming. The Atlantic reports that Le Quang Binh, director of iSee, is very proud of the movement and its progress over the last five years. "The public opinion of LGBT [community] was very negative in the past. It has become very, very supportive and positive today…I think that's a really fast change for Vietnam, or even compared with any other country."4 Indeed, the first gay parade in Vietnam took place in Hanoi in August 2012, Vietnam Idol featured an openly transgender contestant in its last season, and the Youtube web series My Best Gay Friends has become a viral success, with over one million views for many of its episodes. My Best Gay Friends portrays the lives of homosexual, transgender, and lesbian characters unceremonially. Rather than causes for struggle, the various sexual and gender identities are presented as normal, unproblematic, and matter-of-fact. According to BusinessWorld, one of the stars of the show, Huynh Nguyen Dang Khoa, recently commented: “I thought it would only interest Vietnam’s gay community—but we’re hearing that parents, grandparents, whole families watch and love the shows and long for new episodes.”5
In some respects the sudden support for same-sex marriage is surprising, but in others it is not. Much of the movement’s progress can be attributed to the activism of groups such as iSee and Information Connecting and Sharing (ICS), which worked toward changing the representation of LGBT individuals and LGBT issues in the media. The director of ICS, Tran Khac Tung, explained to The Atlantic: “We analyzed the newspapers to see how stigmatizing and discriminating their articles were…We engaged the media, and step by step they became familiar with the issue and then a lot of their reports were not so negative and more neutral and more ethical."6 Given Vietnam’s consistent ranking near the bottom of international surveys of press freedom, it is moving to witness such openness to change and the revision of entrenched norms.
Vietnam’s Confucian social mores emphasize hetero-normative family ideals and tradition, but the predominant religions in Vietnam are not outspoken against homosexuality. While there is an established, historic Catholic presence in Vietnam, the church wields little influence in public affairs. The lack of religious barriers to acceptance has made Vietnam more receptive to the activist groups’ calls for more humane and open-minded treatment of the LGBT community and for the championing of its issues. Additionally, the Vietnamese government has rightly perceived that the LGBT community poses no threat to its power.
The lack of religious barriers to acceptance has made Vietnam more receptive to the activist groups’ calls for more humane and open-minded treatment of the LGBT community.
This is the story of how the international LGBT rights movement found support in one of the most unlikely places. What lessons can we in the Philippines learn from the Vietnamese LGBT rights movement, so that we too may find quick, wide support from yet another deeply unlikely corner?
The Philippines: Current state of affairs in LGBT rights
What is the state of LGBT rights in the Philippines? Actually, same-sex marriages are performed within and recognized by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CCP). According to Edwin Espejo in his December 27, 2010 article for Asian Correspondent, the New People’s Army (NPA) officiated the first recorded same-sex marriage in the Philippines in February 2005 between comrades Ka Andres and Ka Jose. Senior members of the Southern Mindanao Regional Party Committee of the CPP officiated the marriage before an audience of comrades, witnesses, and select journalists. Espejo further reports:
“Relationships inside the rebel movement are governed by a set of rules embodied in the rebel document entitled OPRS (On Personal Relationship of Sexes). Courtship goes through the collectives of each prospective partner and women are allowed to court men. [Communist leader Jorge Madlos, or Ka Oris] said [the CCP does] not discriminate on the sexual preference of [its] members although promiscuous relationships and sexual opportunism are strictly prohibited and carry disciplinary actions. Marriage inside the rebel movement is usually officiated by a high ranking rebel officer or a senior cadre. Couples swear their love and loyalty to each other with the communist flag as a backdrop. The couple also exchange bullets while they vow to each other.”7
What about outside the CCP? Mercifully, private, non-commercial, homosexual sex between consenting persons is legal in the Philippines. However, public shows of affection or sexual conduct between members of the same sex may be subject to the ‘grave scandal’ law. Additionally, since 2009, LGBT-identifying persons have been permitted to serve in the military. However, the LGBT community in the Philippines enjoys no protection of civil rights at all.
This is deeply disappointing. It was in the Philippines that the first-ever gay march in Asia took place. Our oldest and largest LGBT rights group, the Progressive Organization of Gays in the Philippines (ProGay Philippines), organized that march in 1993. Twenty years hence, what have we achieved?
On April 8, 2010 the Supreme Court of the Philippines reversed the COMELEC ruling that had denied the LGBT political party Ang Ladlad’s petition to run in the May 2010 elections on the grounds of “immorality.” Unfortunately, Ladlad received only 85,175 votes in the 2013 midterm elections; this is down from 114,120 votes in 2010. We can compare this to Gabriela’s 597,978 garnered votes in the 2013 elections, or to Akbayan’s 680,173 votes.
We have much further to go before we can be proud of the way our government and laws treat our fellow citizens. But, until the state and religious organizations are able to surmount their prejudices, we can at least, as individuals, commit to quelling hatred and intolerance in our daily lives, and promise LGBT Filipinos higher standards of respect and humanity than our government currently does.
Thomas Maresca, "Vietnam: Flawed on Human Rights, but a Leader in Gay Rights," The Atlantic, April 30, 2013, accessed online March 10, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/vietnam-flawed-on-human-rights-but-a-leader-in-gay-rights/275413/2
Corinne Pinfold, "Vietnam: Health Ministry recommends legalisation of same-sex marriage," Pink News, April 18, 2013, accessed on March 10, 2015, http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2013/04/18/vietnam-health-ministry-recommends-legalisation-of-same-sex-marriage/3
Thomas Maresca, "Vietnam: Flawed on Human Rights, but a Leader in Gay Rights," The Atlantic, April 30, 2013, accessed online March 10, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/vietnam-flawed-on-human-rights-but-a-leader-in-gay-rights/275413/4
Tran Thi Minh Ha, "Vietnam gay sitcom becomes Internet smash," BusinessWorld Online, May 2, 2013, accessed on March 10, 2016, http://www.bworldonline.com/content.php?section=Weekender&title=Vietnam-gay-sitcom-becomes-Internet-smash&id=695896
Thomas Maresca, "Vietnam: Flawed on Human Rights, but a Leader in Gay Rights," The Atlantic, April 30, 2013, accessed online March 10, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/vietnam-flawed-on-human-rights-but-a-leader-in-gay-rights/275413/7
Edwin Espejo, "Philippine rebels welcome gays, gay marriage into ranks," Asian Correspondent, December 27, 2010, accessed on March 10, 2016, https://asiancorrespondent.com/2010/12/philippine-rebels-welcome-gays-gay-marriage-into-ranks/