Daily Dispatches

Vietnam considering legalizing same-sex marriage

Marriage

Vietnam's Communist government is now considering whether to allow same-sex couples to marry or legally register and receive rights. The country would be the first in Asia to do so.

Even longtime gay-rights activists are stunned by the Justice Ministry's proposal to include same-sex couples in its overhaul of the country's marriage law. No one knows what form it will take or whether it will survive long enough to be debated before the National Assembly next year, but supporters say the fact that it's even being considered is a victory in a region where homosexuality can result in jail sentences or whippings with a rattan cane.

"I think everyone is surprised," said Vien Tanjung, an Indonesian gay-rights activist. "Even if it's not successful it's already making history. For me, personally, I think it's going to go through."

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Vietnam will also hold its first public gay pride parade Aug. 5 in Hanoi.

The country is socially conservative, but the government restricts the kind of politicized religious movements that typically push back against same-sex marriage in other countries. Gay pride events also seem to pose little threat to Communist Party's dominance.

The same-sex marriage proposal still has several hurdles before it could become law. The Justice Ministry will consider opinions from the public along with government agencies before submitting its draft proposal to the National Assembly next May on whether to recommend same-sex marriage or some other type of legal recognition with rights. Then, it must be approved by a majority of parliament.

Vietnam seems an unlikely proponent of gay-rights issues. It is routinely lambasted by the international community over its dismal human rights record, often locking up political dissidents who call for democracy or religious freedom. Up until just a few years ago, homosexuality was labeled as a "social evil" alongside drug addiction and prostitution.

And Vietnam's gay community itself was once so underground that few groups or meeting places existed. It was taboo to even talk about the issue.

But over the past five years, that's slowly started to change. Vietnam's state-run media, unable to write about politically sensitive topics or openly criticize the one-party government, have embraced the chance to explore gay issues. They have run lengthy newspaper stories and television broadcasts, including one live special that won a top award.

The Justice Ministry now says a legal framework is necessary because the courts do not know how to handle disputes between same-sex couples living together. The new law could provide rights such as owning property, inheriting and adopting children.

Globally, 11 countries have legalized same-sex marriage since the Netherlands became the first to do so in 2001.

The issue has remained largely off the table across Asia. In Thailand, many tourists see a vibrant gay, lesbian and transgender community, but it exists largely as part of the country's lucrative entertainment industry, separated from politics and conservative Thai society.

Muslim-dominated nations such as Indonesia have strict laws against homosexuality. Sodomy can result in up to 20 years in jail and caning in Malaysia. But that hasn't stopped some from continuing to fight for more rights and visibility. In Singapore, more than 15,000 people - double last year's turnout - recently held up pink lights in a park at night to support acceptance of the community in a modern city-state where gay sex remains illegal, even though the law is not enforced.

In Taiwan, a 2003 bill to recognize same-sex marriage failed to receive enough support to make it law, though a lesbian couple is expected to tie the knot in August at a Buddhist monastery.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Les Sillars
Les Sillars

Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is the editor of WORLD's Mailbag section.

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