Vietnam has scrapped regulations that fine same-sex couples who marry in what activists say is yet another move towards guaranteeing the rights of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community.
The move comes as part of a larger wave of progress for gay rights champions.
In July last year, the Ministry of Justice began openly discussing legalizing same-sex marriages. Though no concrete measures have been taken so far, the Ministry of Justice did start polling public opinion on this issue while considering amendments to prevailing marriage laws.
The results of that poll are not yet public but according to a study released last December by the Hanoi-based non-profit Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), support for same-sex marriages was quite low at 37 percent, while 58 percent opposed it.
Also in December, the government began mulling whether or not to allow same-sex couples to legally cohabitate. Though nothing has come of that yet either, a draft proposal was issued last month that would have doubled the fine for same-sex marriages.
Under the draft decree that would have taken effect this July, homosexual couples that get married would have been fined VND200,000-1 million (US$9.55-47.77), twice the current fine introduced in 2000.
Gay rights activists lambasted the proposal, dismissing it as a “step back” for the protection of LGBT rights in a Confucian society where homosexuality was once labeled as taboo and even a “social evil.”
After a firestorm of criticism from the media and the public, authorities took note and did away with the fine. And by doing so, they have implicitly acknowledged the “nonsensical” implications of the draft laws, gay-rights activists say.
“This is another new step forward that is in line with Vietnam’s current trend [of] protecting the rights of LGBT people,” said Le Quang Binh, a sociologist who runs the iSEE.
But Binh, who has headed several research projects on lesbian and gay issues, and other experts in the field were not overly optimistic. They all concurred that Vietnam is gradually on the right track to legalize same-marriage, but still has miles to go.
Deputy minister of Justice Pham Quy Ty said scrapping the fine for same-sex marriages stemmed from the the fact that it was no longer appropriate with the status quo.
“The absence [of the fine] doesn’t mean Vietnam recognizes same-sex marriages,” Ty was quoted by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper as saying.
Indeed, his ministry has repeatedly said that same-sex marriages may not be legalized in the short run and such legalization needs more research and debate.
In the offing
Activists have pointed out that merely allowing same-sex marriages would not usher in social tolerance for such couples or eradicate severe discrimination.
Besides polling public opinion on legalizing same-sex marriages, the Ministry of Justice is drafting another law that is looking to provide the LGBT community with basic rights such as the right to inheritance and to adopt children.
As Vietnam’s leadership has issued a call for input on what will be its first constitutional amendment since 1992, a network of civil organizations and NGOs in Vietnam have jointly put out a petition calling for equal rights for LGBT people in the society.
The prevailing constitution only acknowledges marriage as between a man and woman.
The joint petition also asked for recognition of the rights to marry and divorce for “every one.”
A member of the grouping that is responsible for collecting public opinions on the amended constitution said on condition of anonymity that there has been “heated debate” on these issues. Several members apparently threw support behind the changes, he said.
Meanwhile, support for the LGBT movement in Vietnam has shown no sign of simmering down.
In early this month, Vietnam’s first-ever gay sitcom “My best gay friends” made by a 21-year-old student went viral online as the first episode of the series debuted to rave reviews on YouTube. It has garnered more than one million views so far.
Vietnam held its first public gay pride parade August 5 in Hanoi. The country’s first publicized gay wedding went viral online in 2010. Many ceremonies of gay and lesbian couples have also grabbed headlines.
While same-sex marriages are outlawed in Asia, they are legal in 11 countries on four continents and in parts of Brazil, Mexico, and the US. By legalizing same-sex marriages, Vietnam could become the first country in Asia to do so.
But some skeptics, most of them from the diplomat community here in Vietnam and Western media outlets, say the move to legalize same-sex marriage was in fact just part of Vietnam’s charm offensive to show the international community that the country is making headway on improving its human rights record.
It is also aimed at diverting public attention away from the economic crisis Vietnam is struggling to deal with, the skeptics say.
Binh, the gay-rights activist, bristled at such cynicisms.
It is the increasing number of gay and lesbian couples who are confronting social disdain and legal constraints by coming out and declaring their orientation, coupled with the social increased tolerance toward the LGBT and the media support for them, that has been pivotal in leading the Ministry of Justice to consider same-sex marriages, Binh said.
“Everyone has their own prejudice,” he said.
“In this case, it is the entrenched prejudice against Vietnam’s human rights record that has done nothing but to gloss over the right thing the [justice ministry] is pursuing and dismiss the [significant] role of the LGBT community and civil organizations in Vietnam.”