After Britain and France, will Vietnam be the next country to enact same-sex marriage?

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Now that the House of Lords has approved changes to the same-sex bill in Parliament in the United Kingdom, same-sex marriage is set to become a reality in England and Wales (a separate Scottish bill is set to follow) under Conservative prime minister David Cameron.vietnam

That follows the final enactment of same-sex marriage in France earlier this summer — though the center-right and far right have vocally opposed it, the Assemblée nationale passed the measure with ease in June, fulfilling one of president François Hollande’s key campaign promises.

Great Britain (once Scotland joins) will become the 14th nation-state to have enacted legal same-sex marriage, joining France and eight other European countries,* as well as Argentina, Brazil, Canada and South Africa.  That doesn’t include México City or the 13 states (and the District of Columbia)** in the United States that have enacted marriage equality, which comes with the full set of rights and privileges of federal law following the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Windsor that rules the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.  Last month, Germany’s constitutional court delivered same-sex partnerships a key victory by ruling that they are entitled to the same tax rights as other married couples.

So what’s the next horizon in what’s become a global fight for LGBT rights and marriage equality?

Vietnam.

Probably not what you were thinking, right?  After all, Asia has not typically been the most hospitable battleground for LGBT rights.

Moreover, Vietnam is a socialist republic and a one-party state ruled by a party, the Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam (Vietnamese Communist Party), that’s been enshrined through Vietnam’s constitution as the sole organ of political affairs since 1975, when North Vietnam formally overran South Vietnam, thereby uniting the entire country under communist rule.  The Vietnamese government is repressive on just about every other vector — press freedom, internet freedom, and of course, the kind of political freedom that would allow a challenge to the governing elite.  Though the country has been transformed economically as its one-time Marxist roots have been eroded into a more state capitalist approach, and its top destination for exports is now the United States (relations between the two countries have now been normalized for nearly two decades), the zeal for liberalization hasn’t met with the same enthusiasm in other quarters.

Vietnam is most well-known internationally for its economic growth — it’s a ‘Next Eleven‘ country and, while its GDP growth has slowed in recent years, it’s still poised to become a breakout economic power in southeast Asia.  It’s also a party to the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations that could ultimately establish a free-trade zone among the United States and other South American and Asian countries.

It’s less well-known for its positions on social justice, but it would be a huge coup for the global marriage equality movement — with over 90 million people, it’s the 13th most populous country in the world, and it would be the first Asian jurisdiction to recognize same-sex marriage. 

But upon further reflection, it makes sense that Vietnam would be the perfect foothold for same-sex marriage rights.  Its government was just Marxist enough for just long enough that its official policy of discouraging official religion means that the country, which officially remains an atheist state, doesn’t have a strong religious infrastructure, either Christian or Buddhist, that would oppose homosexuality with the same vigor as, say, the Christian church in South Korea or the Philippines, or Muslim worshippers in countries like China, India or Indonesia.  Moreover, what religion remains is largely of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and, while Buddhist teaching (of either the Mahayana or the more traditional Theravada branch of Buddhism) doesn’t necessarily embrace homosexuality, neither does it target same-sex relationships with the same condemnation as Islam or Christianity.

Generalizations about religion, however, are just that — generalizations.  There’s more specific proof of progress from both civil society groups in Vietnam pushing for wider rights and, even more crucially, from Vietnam’s Communist government itself.  Hanoi held its first-ever gay pride parade in August 2012, and Vietnam now has a hit web sitcom about gay life on YouTube, and the government has not significantly repressed either the growing Vietnamese movement for gay rights or the burgeoning LGBT cultural scene.

But there are signs that Vietnam’s Quốc hội (National Assembly) might move soon to make at least a first step toward recognizing same-sex relationships, if not necessarily granting full same-sex marriage rights immediately.  The National Assembly meets twice a year and, given that the Communist Party holds 458 of its 500 seats, it means that enacting same-sex marriage is essentially a matter of party policy.

As Thomas Maresca wrote in The Atlantic a few months ago, Vietnamese officials are tentatively laying out the case for marriage equality:

At a hearing to discuss marriage law reforms on April 16 in Hanoi, deputy minister of health Nguyen Viet Tien proposed that same-sex marriage be made legal immediately: “As human beings, homosexuals have the same rights as everyone else to live, eat, love, and be loved,” he said, according to local media.

The latest signs from Hanoi are that the Communist Party are preparing to do just that after the National Assembly met in June.  While same-sex marriage has not yet been adopted, there’s definitely movement in that direction, with the ministry of justice set to abolish a 2000 law on marriage and family that prohibits same-sex marriage, combined with new regulations to address the rights of same-sex relationships.

Vietnamese officials are actively speaking in terms of a ‘roadmap,’ whereby recognition of same-sex relationships today would lead to full marriage rights in the future, in the same way that many European and U.S. governments recognized discrete ‘civil partnerships’ en route to full recognition of same-sex marriage:

Trong bối cảnh hiện nay, bước đi phù hợp nhất của pháp luật Việt Nam là Nhà nước không nên can thiệp hành chính vào quyền được sống theo bản dạng giới, khuynh hướng tính dục của người đồng tính; cần tôn trọng việc sống chung như vợ chồng của họ cũng như các thỏa thuận của họ trong việc xác lập và giải quyết các vấn đề phát sinh từ cuộc sống chung. Đồng thời, cần có những quy định pháp luật thích hợp để giúp họ giải quyết một cách ổn thỏa các hậu quả pháp lý của việc sống chung này nhằm góp phần bảo đảm các quyền, lợi ích chính đáng của các đương sự và sự ổn định của các quan hệ xã hội.

[In this context, the most appropriate step in Vietnam's law is that the State should not interfere in the administration of rights regarding gender identity, sexual orientation of gay people, and should respect their cohabitation as spouses as well as establish and resolve policy issues that arise therefrom. At the same time, there will be need for appropriate legislation to help solve the legal consequences of same-sex partnerships, ensuring the rights and legitimate interests of the parties and the stability of social relations.]

Though the National Assembly may not move this year on same-sex marriage, Vietnam remains far ahead of the rest of Asia, where the only other country to have considered same-sex partnerships is Thailand (debate began earlier this year as well).  One gay activist argued that the Vietnamese changes will come in 2014, and the delay will give proponents of gay marriage time to educate a population that may be unfamiliar with LGBT individuals:

‘It’s not official yet but I learned that the Ministry of Justice requested that the National Assembly to postpone the submission of the law for one year,’ said Le Quang Binh director of the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE) who advocates for minorities’ rights in Vietnam.  iSEE has worked with the government on their same-sex marriage consultations, which have included presentations from international experts from the US and the Netherlands, LGBT people themselves and PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Vietnam.

Le said an extra year would be helpful for gathering support for the issue among the delegates of the National Assembly. ’I think it’s not a bad thing to delay for one year,’ Le said. ‘We actually think it may be good because then we have more time to work with the national assembly and educate the population.’  Le said that he has seen positive signs that same-sex marriage will be supported by the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Health and the National Assembly’s Social Affairs Committee who would appraise the law.

From a cynical perspective, enacting same-sex marriage would give the Vietnamese government cause to argue that it’s enacted stronger human rights protection than even the United States and other liberal democracies, at least on gay rights.  It’s a way of showing to both its domestic audience and the rest of the world that Vietnam, too, can deliver human rights under its creaky Communist system.  But the advent of same-sex marriage in Vietnam would have a more immediate effect within Asia, giving gay activists throughout the continent hope that their own countries might follow suit in due course.

* Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

** California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island Vermont and Washington.

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