Vietnam may be regarded as the most repressive Southeast Asian nation in its bid to muzzle dissenting voices and gag public freedoms, but the one-party Communist state is becoming a surprise torchbearer for gay rights in the region.
In the rapidly booming region, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Brunei outlaw homosexuality, while Singapore has a draconian law criminalizing sexual acts between men.
In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim democracy, nine of 10 people surveyed recently said gay people "should not be accepted." Under a proposed bylaw in one province in the archipelago, homosexuals could be subjected to 100 lashes of the cane and/or fined.
Against this somber regional backdrop, Vietnam appears to be blazing the trail in efforts to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, even as the country comes under sharp criticism from rights groups for a dramatic rise in the number of convictions and jailing of political activists and dissidents this year.
A deep-rooted Confucian society, Vietnam this month gave same-sex couples the right to live together and to hold wedding ceremonies. It will soon—possibly this month—even lift a ban on gay marriages without formally recognizing such unions, media reports say.
“Vietnam is advancing rights for same-sex couples, but still needs to take the final step to guarantee marriage equality for all,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
Vietnamese lawmakers are currently meeting in a session that is expected to consider amendments to the 2000 Marriage and Family Law that will remove provisions outlawing same-sex marriage and will have regulations aimed at resolving disputes among gay couples on such issues as property ownership and parental rights and responsibilities.
However, Adams said, the suggested changes fall short of legalizing such partnerships, making it unclear whether LGBT couples will be able to register their marriages with the authorities.
The move to revise the marriage and family law at the current session of the National Assembly—Vietnam's parliament—came just after Hanoi began implementing a decree on Nov. 1 that did away with fines for those organizing or participating in same-sex wedding ceremonies.
Vietnam's Justice Minister Ha Hung Cuong said a "gradual transition" towards marriage equality is the "correct approach" in the tightly ruled country, where a survey released a year ago showed that only 37 percent of those interviewed support same-sex marriage, with 58 percent "actively opposing" it.
Duong Dang Hue, director of Vietnam's Administrative Law Department at the Justice Ministry and a member of a group that drafted the amendments to the marriage law, said the changes reflect Hanoi's respect for human rights.
“We begin by ceasing to treat gay marriage as a taboo. We respect human rights,” Hue was quoted by Thanh Nien, the flagship publication of the Vietnam National Youth Federation, as saying.
Hue said gay marriage is officially recognized only in the West and that no Asian country has embraced the practice.
"We are making big changes,” he said.
Thailand and the Philippines are arguably the most gay-friendly in Southeast Asia but same-sex marriages have not been legalized in the two countries.
Thailand has said that it would soon start making official moves to legalize same-sex marriage.
Grace Poore, the regional program coordinator for Asia and the Pacific Islands at the U.S.-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), said while Vietnam was being "pragmatic" in its move to recognize same-sex marriages, the country still has a major task ahead in ending widespread discrimination against the LGBT community.
"It’s not only same-sex marriage that is important but discrimination in other areas of LGBT people’s lives must also stop," she said. "There should not only be equality in marriage but also equality in employment, education, and the portrayal of LGBT people in the media. We just can't assume that other layers of discrimination would end with same-sex marriages."
Vietnam has 1.65 million LGBT people among its 90 million population, according to Vietnam's Institute for Studies of Society, Economy, and Environment (iSEE).
Pham Quynh Phuong, a researcher at the institute, was quoted by the Vietnamese media as saying that most transsexuals face social bias and difficulties in obtaining jobs once they come out and reveal their real gender identity.
“Living with their real gender is the biggest desire for a transgender person. But most of them choose to conceal it fearing discrimination,” Phuong said.
Poore hopes Vietnam would join other voices in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) such as Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia to pave the way for the region to embrace LBGT reforms.
She said that Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei had opposed the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the first ever ASEAN Human Rights Declaration adopted by the region's leaders last year.
ASEAN, which operates by consensus, comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
"To the grave disappointment of representatives of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer peoples throughout the region, the declaration did not include protections for this highly vulnerable group," Poore said.
She said it was an irony that ASEAN did not include the protection of gay rights as all 10 member states have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which have specific provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.