Mon, Aug 04, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Gays in Vietnam seek an identity

Although relatively free from discrimination, some Vietnamese gays feel their existence is ignored rather than accepted

AFP , HO CHI MINH CITY

With his pink lipstick, eye makeup and black nail varnish, Ti prefers not to shake hands and instead raises his arm into the classic, cliched limp-wristed position.

"I knew I was gay from the age of five or six," said the 27-year-old, sitting in a coffee shop in Vietnam's southern business capital of Ho Chi Minh City.

"I started wearing girls' clothes at first, and then when I was about 14 I started wearing makeup."

Ti stands out everywhere he goes in the city, whether he is with other gay men or not. "I don't care what people think. I don't feel discriminated against anyway. I've never been attacked or verbally abused," he said.

While cross-dressers are few and far between in the bustling metropolis, homosexuals are not.

Two years ago, Chung A, the head of the country's anti-AIDS, prostitution and drugs committee, declared that the number of gays in Vietnam could be counted on the fingers of his two hands. By March this year, Chung had changed his tune. "The number of homosexuals has increased a lot and the issue of AIDS prevention in this group needs to be addressed," he was quoted by the Lao Dong newspaper as saying.

The dramatic increase in the number of openly gay men in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi has sparked considerable media interest, with most newspapers labeling homosexuals as being either ill or victims of a current trend.

In the women's magazine The Gioi Phu Nu, a married man wrote into an agony-aunt column in May to express his distress at having fallen in love with a young man.

The response was less than sympathetic. "It's fortunate you and the young man are conscious of your `horrific love affair' and that you want to find a way out," said the magazine's advice columnist.

"I suggest you find a doctor who specializes in this field, be brave, admit your sickness and get cured."

The family magazine Tiep Thi Va Gia Dinh also did not mince words on the topic of homosexuality.

"Loving people of the same sex is deviant behavior that is incompatible with the good morals and time-honored customs of Vietnam," it asserted in a March issue.

But Le Hoang, the popular director of the controversial sex and drugs movie Bar Girls, struck a softer tone when he answered questions about homosexuality on a Vietnamese Web site in May.

In response to a man who said he could tolerate neither the genuinely "ill" gays nor the fashion victims, Hoang said: "Why? Are you gay yourself? Gays are ill, but there is no law saying ill people should be punished."

"Qualities such as morality, talent and dignity do not depend on sexuality. In Denmark, gays can marry. Well, Vietnam may not be Denmark, but we're not back in the Roman times either."

Outward discrimination of the kind sometimes found in Western countries is rare in Vietnam, possibly because homosexuality does not yet exist as a firm concept in Vietnam and also because a large degree of same-sex tactility is accepted as normal in Southeast Asian cultures.

"Gay identity is not well established in Vietnam. A man could have sex with another man and not consider himself gay," said Donn Colby, a Fulbright Research Scholar who conducted a survey entitled Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM) in Ho Chi Minh City in 2001. "Because of this the number of men who experiment with sex with other men is probably higher here than in the West."

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