A Ten-Year Journey
Searching for meaning is the biggest quest in human life. Like leaves fated to photosynthesize, flowers destined to emit scents, or sea waves compelled to rush to the shore then burst into foam, we humans have an inherent longing to understand why we exist in this world and where we drift to.
by Tisha Alvarez

It was six o’clock in the afternoon of Valentine’s Day in the year 2011. I was driving along Nguyen Thai Hoc street on my way home from District 4 after my first working day at ICS, an organization that worked for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Vietnam. On that very day, I started my full-time social activism. I felt like the busy streets before me on that day of love: charged with excitement but mixed with some bewilderment—a hallmark of both my career and my personal life. It seemed apt that one of ICS’s early slogans was “born to love,” reminding me of our purpose.

I had gotten my bachelor degree in law in the previous year and then worked for a securities company for six months. Although the working environment was comfortable and there was much to learn, I resigned on Christmas day. Am I too young for a steady career path? At that time, I came out to my family and close friends but there was no point in disclosing my sexual orientation in the workplace and in public. I didn’t have a close connection with the LGBT community and most of my few friends in the community were lesbians. One of them talked to me about ICS, a community project that was being developed as an independent organization. I applied and was hired as a project assistant. I told the organization’s advisors that I would just dip my toe into social work while waiting for the bar exam, then I would go back to my legal profession.

Ten years later, I’m still here.

Go with the “calling”

In Vietnam years ago, “calling” often referred to patriotic ideals but now it simply means “life goals.” Calling is the common theme rocking quarter-life-crisis after we have finished higher education, worked for a few years, and experienced a few successes and failures—looking back at the journey thus far, we grapple with questions about dreams, occupations, and passion.

After becoming aware of life goals comes the time for sacrifice, making the difficult choice to follow our calling. So, “finding our calling” is not limited to simply “finding” but also “fighting” because what happens after we find our calling is more important than the moment it comes to us. Like romantic love, it is not about why a couple falls in love, but about why they choose to stay together. There are numerous ways to fall for someone. We cannot choose who we will meet in life; we can only choose who we will (not) leave behind. Similarly, we accept a job due to various combined factors. Making our choice work is up to us—there is no blueprint for success and most advice from people whom we perceive to be successful will not be wholly applicable to us.

Working with the LGBT community, I felt like I had found my calling whenever I received thanks from strangers and saw the joy in the young activists’ faces after a long day of activities. The simple reason why I stay in this job is because I feel like I’m being helpful here.

The courage to be ourselves

The Vietnamese word “dũng cảm” (courageous) is different from “gan dạ” (fearless). A fearless person leaves their safety, hanging on a cliff edge, but a courageous one pushes their weakness and vulnerability to the edge of challenge. Nelson Mandela once said: “Courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Courage is still feeling the fear but knowing what is right and continuously endeavoring to achieve it.

In English, “courage” derives from Latin “cour,” which means heart, and “-age” which means “to act.” Thus, the original meaning of courage is “to act with all your heart.” Mankind for sure has a common view of the connection between courage and the human heart!

I have always thought that only when we take off all our masks can we be ourselves. However, we cannot be ourselves if we feel insecure. Moreover, those of us in the LGBT community face “minority stress” when we come out: we have to be a good gay person (though everyone needs to be good), we have to be a proud one.

In the early 2000s, LGBT people in Vietnam were hidden and only connected anonymously through online forums. Social discourse regarding LGBT people was extremely negative, with the majority of news articles referring to their identity as “unnatural,” “a mental disorder,” “social evil,” “western influence,” or “morally wrong.”

That is the society I grew up in for most of my adolescence. I saw zero support from the education system for LGBT people, read hateful news articles, and saw media depicting LGBT people as criminals. I had no role model. There was no organization working for LGBT rights.

On March 2011, I attended a training course for gay men in South East Asia. That afternoon, our class took a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake. It was the first time I openly walked with so many queer people (though fewer than ten). I felt happy and included, knowing that I did not need to hide and that I wasn’t going to be judged.

In 2012, the play “Being Yourself” was performed, and I was the MC at the end of it. I thought very quickly of a way to help the audience get the feeling of “being yourself.” I stood on the stage and told stories of LGBT people who had the courage to live as themselves despite sacrifice and loss. I said, “Silence is gold, is diamond, but no more silence for us today. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and ones who are proud to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, please stand up!”

It was one of the most beautiful moments in my life. For the very first time in Vietnam I think, there was an impressive collective coming out. There were people who stood up and burst into tears. There might have been vulnerability but once they were pushed to the edge, their courage thrived. Standing up seems like such a mundane act of standing up, repeated countless times in one’s life. But to those who stood up with me that night, it was the rise of the hearts, of the strength within hearts, and it was acting with all of heart—the courage to be oneself.

Marriage equality

In 1998, two women in Vinh Long applied for a marriage certificate. At that time, the law did not prohibit it, NOT because it supported marriage equality, but because they could not imagine that possibility. The authorities refused the couple. In 2000, Vietnam adopted the revised Law on Marriage and Family, which explicitly banned same-sex marriage.

On February 2012, a wedding between two women in Dam Doi, Ca Mau was interrupted by officials. The women and their families were summoned and told that what they were doing was wrong. They were also asked to pledge that they would not live together.

There were quite a few press reports over this story then. At the same time, the Draft Law on Marriage and Family was under public consultative period. Vietnamese government announced their plan to revise the 2000 Law on Marriage and Family, as a periodical requirement for any law after more than 10 years of implementation. But the year 2012 was not 1998. The LGBT community was not silent anymore. A group of non-governmental organizations working for LGBT rights in Vietnam created an online social campaign, "I Do," to call for the support of marriage equality.

We asked people to take a picture of themselves with the message of equal love, equal marriage. A lot of public figures and well-known people supported the "I Do" campaign. Other minority groups like people with disabilities, elder people, street workers, etc. also rose to support LGBT rights. The coalition collected 3,000 signatures and sent the petition to all members of the National Assembly. The Parents of Gay and Lesbian People, PFLAG, stood by their children. We also did a first ever survey and researched on the topic of same-sex marriage and used them for evidence-based advocacy.

With successful and wide-spread social campaigns promoting the universal value of love, social discussions have been getting progressively more positive, with the topics shifting to better reflect the real stories and experiences of LGBT individuals in Viet Nam. The draft law on Marriage and Family added some important regulations to recognize same-sex civil union with some equal rights as opposite-sex couples.

In a conference on the implementation of the Law on Marriage and Family on April 16th 2013, I sat beside a lady from the legal policy division of the Vietnam Women’s Union. When a speaker talking about LGBT human rights stated that “Homosexuals are created by nature,” she blurted out, “How nature!?” Then she explained her comment to the man next to her. I let her finish her chat before telling her, “You know what, I’m gay.”

Then I shared with her why lesbian and gay people need legal recognition. Sometime later in an interview on marriage and family, she mentioned our conversation in the article. However, she kept her viewpoint that the LGBT community should call for social change before advocating to change the law.

In 2013, the Vietnamese National Television, VTV1, asked me to find a representative of the LGBT community to attend a top policy dialogue program of the channel with a key policy maker from the government. I could not find anyone, so finally I decided to be that one. That was the first time I came out about my sexuality to the whole nation. I texted to my father, "Dad, I am on TV," and turned off my phone. The next morning, I could not feel any change to my life, but the longer time passed, the clearer it was that everything was not like it had been before.

I appeared on the television in a very critical moment when the draft law had been watered down very much. It avoided mentioning protection and recognition of same-sex marriage, but more than legal consequences for the cohabitation of same-sex couples. The campaign lasted until May 2014 when the National Assembly officially passed the law, which no longer prohibited but still did not recognize same-sex marriage. “No prohibition, no recognition” means nothing changed, but nothing was the same. The doors have been unlocked.

Two women in Ca Mau might not know how their story played a unique role and triggered an unprecedented process for the LGBT community in Vietnam. People say do not let the pain become wasteful. Many things have changed because of the people who overcame challenges of their times.

Looking back at how the laws have changed, I can’t help remembering a civic education class in grade when I was younger. We were studying about marriage and family, and our teacher read out loud from the text book: “Marriage between same gender is prohibited.” I gazed at those lines, feeling disappointed and enraged. I later found out that not only did I feel that way in my class then. I hope in my lifetime, that page will have a new answer to the question, “Who of the following are not allowed to marry each other?” so that young people can give an answer from their hearts without the fear of stigma and discrimination.

Every time people try to discourage us by saying that Vietnam is not like other developed countries, who have fought for decades, or even a century, for LGBT rights, I would respond, "I will not be upset if we need 100 years to create a small change, but I will be upset if we spend 10 years, and nothing is moving forward." Being fast or slow does not matter. What matters is we must start now, and never stop moving forward.

Transgender rights

On August 29th 2012, the first research on Vietnamese transgenders named “Desire to be themselves” was introduced. It was one of the most-attended press conferences I’ve ever known. The event team had to step out of the room because it was too crowded inside though the venue was the biggest room of the Pullman hotel in Hanoi.

At the press conference, Ngoc Ly, a representative from the transgender community, shared her memory of her school life. In grade 10, Ly was beaten and splashed with water, and her books were torn by her classmates. Ly was not the only survivor. We are all survivors of a gender-prejudiced ideology that creates a fear of diversity and suppresses who we truly are.

Three days before the press conference, a colleague of mine saw Cat Thy, a transgender representative, off at Saigon train station. Being a transgender person, Cat Thy could not travel to Hanoi by plane because of her legal identification. She had to spend two long, tiring days on a train just to say a few words at the conference, sharing what she experienced every day, from being insulted, being compared with animals to being stared at with disgust.

In a speech at the same conference, Mr. Tran That, the Former Head of the Department of Administration Law, expressed his support for transgender rights and announced for the first time that the Civil Code must be amended. There was an impressive sentence in his speech saying, “Your identity need to be returned” indicating that transgender rights are not newly created but must be recognized by the state.

The day came to an end just and two more long, tiring days on a train awaited Cat Thy for her journey back to Saigon.

On October 5th 2013, the Institute of Legislative Studies under the Standing Committee of the National Assembly organized a conference named “Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people: Provision and public views.” It attracted quite a few representatives from the LGBT community and PFLAG. This conversation was a milestone in the process of advocacy for LGBT rights in general and trans rights in particular.

About two weeks before, I contacted a transgender woman named Anh Phong and invited her to the conference. She had just come back from Thailand after surgery and was being tended to by her family at her hometown of Quang Ngai. There was also a film crew following her. After learning about Phong’s health situation at the time, I afraided that she could not attend, yet she asked me whether the conference was important. I told her it could be “a little bit important” because there were many members of the National Assembly. Phong decided to put aside everything for the time being and went on the long trip to Hanoi to do her part. That day, Phong could barely stand, requesting to be allowed to sit while speaking.

Phong said: “I am quite lucky not being discriminated by my family, my teachers, my friends, and my colleagues. They accept and support me. But there are many people who want to live true to themselves and they are discriminated, isolated and are even kicked out of their home and abused. For your information, gender affirmation is not keeping up with the Joneses, it’s a desperately [sic] desire to be oneself. Surgery extremely hurts but even double the pain will not stop me from trying to be myself.”

On June 27th, 2014, for the first time, drag queen artist and trans activist Jessica (Nguyen Huynh To An) attended a conference on trans rights in Hanoi. She has since been a familiar face in dozens of conferences, seminars, dialogues and meetings.

Not once have they received one nickel, not to mention that sometimes they had to deal with unexpected experiences because of their public appearance. Others may ask why they have to keep delivering their message over and over again and may question if their stories are of any help. But after each sharing, there may be more people who would care enough to take some action—they can be from the drafting committee, colleagues of someone in the drafting committee, assistants of members of the National Assembly, or even friends of friends of those people. Nothing is useless.

Right before the last National Assembly session, the government organized a conference in Vinh Phuc province with the attendance of many National Assembly members. Theo organizers invited two representatives of iSEE, ICS, and two transgender people. Later, they informed us that they could only invite two people and representatives from organizations like us would be preferential. I said that I would give up my slot for a member of the trans community. “It’s their journey. Let them continue this journey,” I said. Later, I found out that the person from ICS made the same decision. The organizers then decided that all four of us could attend the conference.The key point of policy advocacy is our presence.

On November 24th 2015, the 13th National Assembly passed the Civil Code which recognized transgender rights. This opened up a new chapter in the movement for the rights of transgender people in Vietnam.


Choosing to stand with minorities

It is hard to determine whether man chooses his fate or fate chooses the man. Only one thing is for sure: Money cannot buy the meaning of life.

The same goes with legal recognition.

Throughout history, there have been many well-known people who belonged to minorities, who used to be discriminated against and treated differently. They devoted their entire lives to obtain the dignity that society refused to give.

While you are on a trail, you know what you must do: pave the way. But you tend to forget your position when you are in a busy intersection or square.

When they were not recognized by the law as equals, minorities began their journey. Driven by the question “why,” they looked at the un-recognized part of them and realized that it was beyond any negotiation.

It is often seen that minorities’ path to learning the meaning of life also helps the majorities find out more about their own life’s meaning. It’s said that in essence, the civil rights movement freed white people more than black people. It freed white people from their deeply rooted prejudices and hatred.

That transgender people could live true to their gender frees society from the prejudice which framed them in rigid gender boxes. That lesbian and gay people could marry anyone they love educates society about the importance of love and the ultimate purpose of marriage, no matter what form the couple takes. In a way, we are all victims of the majority group created by our own. This makes the concept of “liberating the majority group” even clearer.

People often just think of trying to fit the existing mold instead of expanding it. The more we attempt to simplify and unify society, the more problems we create. Only when diversity and difference exist is this life truly simpler and happier for all. Allowing each other’s differences is equivalent to giving each other freedom. And the most basic freedom is the freedom to be oneself. If society used the label “normal” less, people would be happier and prouder, simply because no one have to suffer from being “abnormal.”

In this fight, we are not fighting against people. The ultimate goal of this process is, surprisingly, not about being able to gain legal rights. We continue to fight against ignorance and the hesitation of people to accept new things. There is not just one way to be happy. There is not just one definition of love, family, or tradition. The advocacy for LGBT equality in Vietnam is not only about liberal values and personal freedom, but also the perfection of family values, social harmony, and the power of love. We are not destroying tradition, but creating it.

© 2024 Voices of Hope | Published with the support of  The Equity Initiative   and   The Atlantic Fellows.