HANOI As one of the world's few remaining single-party dictatorships, Vietnam might not immediately spring to mind as a bastion of tolerance when it comes to LGBT rights. But after becoming the first Asian country to abolish a ban on same-sex marriage and with further legislation planned safeguarding the rights of transgender citizens, perceptions of the Southeast Asian socialist state are changing.
The number of openly gay Vietnamese has increased substantially in recent years and, although hard to estimate, is now thought to number in the millions. But with visitors to Vietnam expected to increase with the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, there may well be more to the party's drive for equality than meets the eye.
In January, 47-year-old American Garett and his Taiwanese-American partner visited Ho Chi Minh City to catch up with friends and see how life for the gay community has changed since the removal of the ban.
The couple make no secret of their sexuality, and were pleasantly surprised that on this trip they were not met with the usual stares and whispers as they checked into their hotel or dined out. In most Asian cities, with the exception of Bangkok, they had not always been made to feel quite as welcome. Perhaps Vietnam has changed, said Garett.
With the ban now scrapped, gay couples may be able to celebrate tying the knot with family and friends, but in legal terms there is still a long way to go. The government has stopped short of officially approving same-sex marriage and it has no legal status.
Last November, the parliament passed a bill calling for a revision of the country's civil law to recognize the right to gender reassignment, including the right to amend official family records. The change is due to come into force in January 2017, and will significantly enhance the civil rights of the estimated 500,000-strong Vietnamese transgender community.
But behind Vietnam's adoption of the most liberal and tolerant policy in Asia, the government appears to also have one eye on the impact it may have on the country's economy. Vietnam is counting on economic growth through the AEC, the TPP and bilateral free trade agreements with the European Union and South Korea, and the tourism industry is set to be one of the cornerstones of growth.
If the experiences of Garett and his partner are anything to go by, an LGBT-friendly Vietnam would undoubtedly make the country a more attractive destination to a huge segment of the tourist market.
Nguyen Anh Tuan, 33, of Gay Hanoi Tours, a travel agency specializing in LGBT tours, said, "Overseas travelers favor the Vietnam government's deregulation on LGBT [marriage]. The number of our company's foreign customers rose 30-40% last year from a year earlier. I expect the number to grow more than 20% this year."
The attraction, of course, would not be limited to the gay community, as it would also improve the country's image in the minds of large numbers of heterosexual tourists. Moreover, it would do Vietnam no harm in attracting investment from Western companies that actively support LGBT rights. Bloomberg estimates that the acceptance of same-sex marriage could boost the income of Vietnam's tourist industry by as much as $9 billion.
UNDER THE SURFACE While the LGBT community in Ho Chi Minh City may appear to be basking in its newfound freedom and the government rubs its hands at the prospect of new investment, the majority of gay and transgender Vietnamese can be forgiven for not sharing the euphoria.
Even in the capital Hanoi, many still find it hard to come out to their colleagues or classmates in a city with a far more conservative climate than the south of the country. With gay bars far fewer in number in the capital than in Ho Chi Minh City, gay Hanoians are all too often forced to meet up in secret, having got in touch online.
Chu Than Ha, 25, an NGO employee from a Hanoi suburb, came out as a transgender man in 2012, declaring, "I'm a man inside" to family and friends. Having grown up insisting on sporting cropped hair and boys' clothes, Ha is now comfortable living and identifying as a man but recalls a difficult childhood, where classmates' parents warned their children against playing with the tomboy for fear of "catching her disease."
As the administration of male hormones is not covered by medical insurance in Vietnam, Ha is forced to buy androgen on the black market at three times the regular price. "It's great that the Vietnam government has strengthened the civil rights of transsexuals," Ha said, while expressing concern about how much real impact the legislation will have. "Any details such as social insurance benefits for LGBTs and subsidy for a gender-change operation have yet to be decided."
Moreover, prejudice remains deep-rooted in schools, workplaces and even within families. In rural areas especially, many still believe that being gay or transgender is a disease, discouraging people from coming out.
The Vietnam unit of PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2015 started a GLEE, or "gay, lesbian and everyone else," network in the hope of promoting equal treatment among its employees through parties, concerts and other events. 200 of the unit's 800 employees joined the network. By creating an inclusive environment for everyone regardless of sexual orientation, the company hopes that better understanding and openness can be achieved. Being gay or transgender has nothing to do with a person's job, said David Fitzgerald, partner at PwC Vietnam.
Luong Minh Ngoc of the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), a Hanoi-based institute assisting the social participation of the LGBT community and other minorities, noted: "It is estimated that there are 3.5 million gay and transgender people in Vietnam. Deeper understanding among the general public and the resultant successful anti-discrimination cases at companies, schools and local communities will be a step forward toward a better society."