HANOI, Vietnam—Dinh Thi Hong Loan grasps her girlfriend’s hand, and the two gaze into each other’s love-struck eyes. Smiling, they talk about their upcoming wedding—how they will exchange rings and toast the beginning of their lives together.
The lesbians’ marriage ceremony in the Vietnamese capital won’t be officially recognized, but that could soon change. Vietnam’s communist government is now considering whether to allow same-sex couples to marry or legally register and receive rights—positioning the country to be the first in Asia to do so.
“Our love for each other is real and nothing changes regardless of whether the law is passed or not,” said Loan, 31. “But when it is passed, we will definitely go get registered. I can’t wait!”
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 simply being gay 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.”
Vietnam seems an unlikely champion 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.
Video of Vietnam’s first publicized gay wedding went viral online in 2010, and a few other ceremonies followed, capturing widespread public attention. 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.
“I think, as far as human rights are concerned, it’s time for us to look at the reality,” Justice Minister Ha Hung Cuong said on Tuesday in an online chat broadcast on national TV and radio. “The number of homosexuals has mounted to hundreds of thousands. It’s not a small figure. They live together without registering marriage. They may own property. We, of course, have to handle these issues legally.”
Globally, 11 countries have legalized same-sex marriage since the Netherlands became the first to do so in 2001. Only a few US states allow it, but President Barack Obama provided hope for many couples worldwide after announcing his support earlier this year.
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 has not 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.
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.
“Some people told me if Vietnam could legalize it, it would be very good example for other counties to follow,” said Le Quang Binh, head of the nonprofit Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment, which is consulting on the marriage law. “People think that talking about it is a big step forward already … I hope it will lead to more openness or tolerance for gays and lesbians in Vietnam.”
As for Vietnamese partners Loan and Nguyen Thi Chi, who share a one-room apartment down a narrow alley in Hanoi, they say their love and commitment is real, regardless of whether a law exists to recognize them when they marry next month. But they hope the new proposal will ease stigma that lingers around same-sex couples.
Chi, 20, knows the pain of discrimination all too well. She recently dropped out of college after being publicly outed by a note taped to one of her classroom doors saying she was “diseased.” She was harassed and bullied for a-year-and-a-half on campus until finally deciding that she had enough.
“Things must change,” she said. “Even though it was not a nice experience, more and more people are interested in knowing about the community. And the more people that know about it, the more people will have a different view on it.”