Vietnam says homosexuality ‘not a disease’ in win for gay rights

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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – Phong Vuong was preparing for the launch of a campaign advocating for the legalisation of gay marriage when he heard that the government had decided that homosexuality was “not a disease”.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Health also announced that it was outlawing conversion therapy.

“This announcement that being LGBT is not a disease and condemning the practice of conversion therapy, this is like a dream,” Vuong, the LGBTI rights program manager at The Institute for Studies of Society, Economy, and Environment (iSEE), told Al Jazeera.

“It is something that we never thought would have happened, let alone coming from the most trusted source for medical information in Vietnam … I think the impact on queer youth will be very, very evident.”

The health ministry’s August 3 dispatch is being celebrated for its protection of queer Vietnamese in medical settings and as fuel for an ongoing petition for the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Still, it is unclear how the decision will be enforced with many LGBTQ people still threatened with conversion therapy and often facing harsh treatment from family.

The official announcement, sent to provincial and municipal health departments nationwide before being released on the government’s online information portal on August 8, states that Vietnam’s health minister had received information that some healthcare establishments were claiming to offer “cures” for homosexuality.

Based on this, and citing the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) removal of homosexuality and being transgender from the International Classification of Diseases, it goes on to outline five primary guidelines for the health system.

Education should be strengthened so all medical providers have correct knowledge about “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” it says, and that queer people must be treated equally in medical environments. In addition, LGBTQ identity cannot be treated as a disease, while involuntary treatments are prohibited and mental health services can only be provided by experts on sexual orientation and gender identity. Lastly, supervision and inspection of medical facilities should be increased.

“This is important in the way that it affirms that being LGBT is not something you can fix,” Vuong said. “When a queer child gets taken to a medical facility … if they know about this, it can be used to defend themselves.”

Linh Ngo, ICS director at the organisation’s headquarters in the Binh Thanh District of Ho Chi Minh City [Photo by Govi Snell]

The fight for queer rights

Sustained advocacy for LGBTQ rights preceded the Health Ministry’s announcement.

“It’s not like one day the Ministry woke up and decided it’s time to do this … It took years of effort,” Linh Ngo, director at ICS Center, which advocates for LGBTQ rights, told Al Jazeera.

The fight for the demedicalisation of queerness can be traced to iSEE’s “Leave with Pride” campaign, which was launched in November last year. The campaign petitioned WHO Vietnam to officially assert that LGBTQ identity is not a disease.

iSEE and collaborators created a stunt video to raise awareness for the campaign which posed the question: If queerness is a disease, shouldn’t LGBTQ Vietnamese be able to get sick leave?

In the video, volunteers asked superiors for time off for their “homosexual disease”. The volunteers were berated, cursed at, and asked to leave without their request being granted.

This April, WHO Representative to Vietnam Kidong Park issued a statement in support of ending the medicalisation of queerness.

“We got a statement from WHO and with a lot of help from other civil society partners, we got the Ministry of Health to also respond,” Vuong said of the recent Health Ministry dispatch.

Along with ICS Center, iSEE is now pushing the 2022 Tôi Đồng Ý, or I Agree campaign, which is working to secure support for the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Just three days after its debut on August 10, the campaign had surpassed its goal of 250,000 signatures – more than a million people have signed the petition.

“It’s been great just participating and witnessing this,” said Dieu Anh Nguyen, working for ICS in Ho Chi Minh City. “I think we are basically making history.”

Participants hold rainbow flags while they attend the annual LGBTQ parade in Hanoi, Vietnam, September 22, 2019 [REUTERS/Kham]

The petition will continue until same-sex marriage is legalised, Ngo said. The country’s Law on Marriage and Family is expected to be considered for revision by the governing body of the Communist Party of Vietnam in 2024 or 2025.

The country’s first campaign for the acceptance of gay marriage goes back nearly a decade.

In 2012, the ceremonial wedding of two men in the Mekong Delta was broken up by police. Same-sex marriage had been banned in 2000 and the grooms were fined for breaking the law and forced to leave their hometown.

The incident, as well as the punishment of other same-sex nuptials, led to the first Tôi Đồng Ý campaign in 2013.

The “I Agree” campaign went viral on social media. Soon, many Facebook profile pictures in Vietnam featured equal signs painted onto cheeks and foreheads or Tôi Đồng Ý posters. In the country’s capital, Hanoi, events were staged in support of the campaign in the lead-up to the eighth meeting of the National Assembly in 2014.

The movement successfully led to the decriminalisation of same-sex marriage in 2015, but LGBTQ marriages are still not legally recognised.

“Vietnam is very open right now and has a lot of potential for LGBTI rights but there is not yet any civil protection,” Ngo said.

The threat of conversion therapy

A, whose identity Al Jazeera is protecting, is a trans Vietnamese who has been living in the United States and had been unable to see his parents for two years because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The announcement from the Ministry of Health is a major win … but I will also say this is not automatically like everything is fine,” A told Al Jazeera.

Posing for a photo at a PFLAG event in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam [Photo by Govi Snell]

When he finally returned home to Vietnam in July, his family tried to take him for conversion therapy.

A was able to negotiate his way out of the situation but said it is common for queer millennial and Gen Z Vietnamese to face such treatment.

“The spectre of conversion therapy hangs in every queer Vietnamese person’s household,” A said. “It is one of the most common things that my friends and I have talked about in terms of why we choose to disclose or not disclose.”

Arwen in Ho Chi Minh City agrees.

The 36-year-old considers himself one of the “lucky ones”. Unlike many of his friends, his family accepts him.

Some of his friends have been taken out of school and sent to work, others were given “voodoo treatments,” trapped in their homes, or forced to have sex with someone of the opposite gender as a “cure”, he explained.

A 2015 survey found one in five queer Vietnamese had been forced to see a doctor to have their “sickness” treated, 9.7 percent of the 2,363 survey respondents said their families had enlisted a shaman to “remove spells,” while 60 percent had been forced to change their appearance and gestures, or reprimanded and put under psychological pressure.

Mong Nguyen was a parent who struggled to accept her gay son.

“​​In 2011, I found out that my son is gay,” she told Al Jazeera. “I scolded him every day. I blamed him and wanted him to stay away from his gay friends.”

A year later, Nguyen found out her son had made a suicide attempt.

“I wanted to change to save my kid,” she said.

Today, Nguyen is an active member of the Vietnam Association of Parents and Relatives of the LGBT Community (PFLAG). On August 17, she stood wearing heart-shaped rainbow earrings and holding a Tôi Đồng Ý fan at a PFLAG event in Ho Chi Minh City.

Mong Nguyen leads a PFLAG event at the American Center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam [Photo by Govi Snell]

The sight of seeing so many parents show their support for their LGBTQ children left one 32-year-old entrepreneur in tears because it was so far removed from her own experience.

“I was accidentally found out by my mum when I was 14. Since then I’ve felt like no matter what I do, I’m not good enough,” she said, asking for her name not to be disclosed.

“The [Ministry of Health] announcement clearly helped to boost up my own confidence when I faced her,” she told Al Jazeera. “Mum is a pharmacist — a scientific person … So an official announcement from a legitimate scientific body clearly meant something to her.”

Enforcement of queer rights

While encouraged, queer rights advocates say more needs to be done to ensure the Health Ministry’s guidelines are enforced. And they note the dispatch lacks a legal basis.

“Far too often effective enforcement fails in Vietnam,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia division,  told Al Jazeera.

“Uprooting anti-LGBT beliefs in traditional Vietnamese society will require concerted effort … It’s not like just issuing an order and ‘presto’ everything changes overnight.”

A in the US pointed out that despite the recent announcement, healthcare providers are still offering treatments that claim to “correct one’s gender”. Particularly, Mai Huong Daycare Psychiatry Hospital in Hanoi and Vinmec International Hospital, which has seven locations across the country.

Both hospitals offer treatments based on the idea that there are “real gays” and “fake gays,” the latter of which is considered “curable”.

A links the popularity of this harmful notion to a health column by Dr Tran Bong Son. The column had an “outsized influence” during the 1990s through the early-2000s when sources of information were limited and the government was putting increased focus on the family unit and eradicating “social evils”.

“In reality, there are many people who are real gays, but there are also many who are fake gays,” Mai Huong’s website states.

The hospital claims to have “cured” a 16-year-old female who dressed as a boy and was considered to have a “gender issue”. “After seven months of treatment combining chemotherapy with different psychological therapies, the girl has returned to her normal state and no longer wants to be a man as before,” it says on its website.

Over the phone, a Mai Huong receptionist told Al Jazeera patients need to be asked a series of “psychological questions” to determine if they are a “real gay” or a “fake gay”.

“If fake then we will have a treatment for it,” the receptionist said.

The Vinmec website gives a list of “cures” for ”gender identity disorders” which include “psychological treatment” so the patient “accepts their body’s gender and no longer wishes to live like a person of the other sex”.

At Vinmec in Ho Chi Minh City, a customer relations team officer told Al Jazeera they do not offer special services for LGBTQ people.

A receptionist at its Hanoi clinic told Al Jazeera over the phone that the Ministry of Health’s announcement only applied to “real gays”. Treatment would depend on a case-by-case basis and they “can only cure the cases when patients are confused [about] their genders or after a big shock”.

Vinmec International Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The hospital still advertises so-called cures for gender identity issues online [Photo by Govi Snell]

For Vuong, the medical “treatments” underline the flaws in the Health Ministry’s announcement.

“When there is something done [by a medical practitioner] that is wrong there should be a punishment for that,” Vuong said.

“There is no measure or mechanism for people who are affected by this [conversion therapy] to seek retribution.”

Additional reporting by Thao Nguyen Hao.

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