Vietnam and Cuba, two countries that often receive a lot of flak in the mainstream corporate press (especially when it comes to conversations around human rights and political liberties) have been inching down the road toward LGBTQ equality lately. Events in Orlando the past week and a half call for an evaluation of where the movement is at, what has been achieved, and the work still to be done, both domestically and internationally.
Like most modern societies, both Vietnam and Cuba have spotty or even downright regressive histories when it comes to LGBTQ issues. But as countries that are claiming to be building socialism and committed to the ending of oppression in all its forms, they provide interesting cases of governments and peoples evolving together in a rapidly-changing world.
Homosexuality in Vietnam: Unnamed and unmentioned
Though modern Vietnam has had few explicit legal restrictions on same-sex sexual activity or regulations mandating unequal status for sexual minorities, neither has it had any legal protections for these persecuted groups. Like many Asian societies, official adherence to conservative values and traditional notions of the family have governed surface-level expressions of gender and sexual identity.
When the HIV/AIDS crisis exploded in the latter decades of the twentieth century, the government was quick to attribute it to poor moral choices. In line with this perspective, the state concentrated its prevention efforts on young drug users but left unmentioned – and untreated – the ways in which the epidemic was ravaging the group of men who have sex with men (whether the latter identified as gay, straight, or anything else). A semi-official state of neglect and willful ignorance prevailed.
Attempts to solemnize unregistered same-sex weddings in the late 1990s also met with mixed reactions from the state. A male couple held a ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City in 1997 to the consternation of local administrators. One city official said, “It should be publicly condemned.” When approached by news agencies, however, the police responded that there was no legal framework under which the two could be charged. A similar attempt the following year by a lesbian couple in the province of Vinh Long, however, was the target of official sanction. In that case, the Ministry of Justice intervened and ordered the annulment of the union, saying it was “illegal and runs counter to the morals and traditional customs of the Vietnamese nation.” A law was passed three months after their wedding officially banning same-sex unions.
Even as late as 2002, a report published in a government newspaper declared that homosexuality was a “social evil.” Issued by the Ministry of Labour, War Invalids, and Social Affairs, it lamented the fact that homosexuals, with their “eccentric behavior,” had infiltrated industries such as tourism, restaurants, and bars. Media coverage of the report noted that this “social evil” was on par with such maladies as drug use, prostitution, and the spreading of disease.
A rapid about-face
It was clear that the statement did not, however, represent a consensus view. According to reports, the newspaper of the Communist Youth League responded critically to the government’s perspective, stating “some people are born gay, just as some people are born left-handed.”
It was only in 2006, when the HIV rate among gay men in Hanoi was estimated to have reached a shockingly high 20 percent, that the National Assembly voted to add homosexuals to its list of groups targeted for HIV education and prevention. This shift in government policy actually helped to spark a more coherent LGBTQ movement in the country. HIV education programs became the places where gay men and transgender persons, in particular, first began to network outside of underground bars or clubs. They became the genesis for Vietnam’s current young LGBTQ movement.
Since those days of official neglect and occasional condemnation in the 1990s and early 2000s, the country has seen a quick turnaround on LGBTQ issues. The spark for that change was provided by a confusion in the courts. When Vietnam’s judiciary had no idea how to rule in cases involving child custody, property, and inheritance after same-sex couples separated, it turned to the government to provide legal direction.
The Ministry of Health conducted a review of the Law on Marriage and the Family in 2012, but legislators were unable to reach a consensus on solving this legally ambiguous situation. The justice minister at the time, Ha Hung Cuong, however, expressed the view that it was “unacceptable to create social prejudice against the homosexual community.”
By late 2014, a compromise formula was reached that saw the law banning same-sex marriages repealed, leaving couples free to hold wedding ceremonies. It did not, however, grant the same legal rights and marital recognition enjoyed by straight couples. Taking effect on New Year’s Day 2015, it was certainly a move forward though, especially when compared to the situation of just a few years prior.
Nguyen Anh Tuan, the head of a gay tourist agency in Hanoi, told NBC News, “It’s not perfect… It’s not completely there but it is a great step in the right direction.” He continued, saying, “Vietnam has always adapted and by learning we become stronger individuals, families, and country. I think everyone would agree Vietnam is a quick learner.” His industry is certainly one that will be helped if the country is able to craft a more hospitable image internationally.
In late 2015, the National Assembly took another big step when it voted 282-84 to allow persons who have undergone gender reassignment surgery to register their legal identity under the gender of their choice. It is widely seen as a step toward the legalization of gender reassignment procedures in Vietnam. Those seeking the procedure must currently travel to other countries, such as Thailand. One LGBTQ leader, Nguyen Hai Yen, praised the government’s move, saying, “Now people accept there is a transgender community, their legitimate rights will be ensured.”
The parliament said its actions “meet the demands of a part of society…in accordance with international practice, without countering the nation’s traditions.” Its statement was a symbol of the ongoing evolution of how LGBTQ issues are understood in Vietnam.
Cuba after the Revolution: No paradise for gays
An even more complicated relationship between the gay community and the socialist government has prevailed in Cuba since the time of the 1959 revolution. Homophobia and heterosexism were already the norm in pre-revolutionary Cuba, as demonstrated by a harsh 1930 Public Ostentation Law which penalized “habitual homosexual acts,” “scandalous indecent behavior,” and “ostentatious displays of homosexuality in public.”
Enforcement of this law was actually stepped up in the initial decades after the overthrow of U.S.-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, there were waves of official persecution visited upon the gay population in Cuba. As in many other socialist countries, homosexuality was viewed as a degenerative leftover inherited from bourgeois society. “The social pathological character of homosexual deviations” was targeted for elimination by the first National Congress on Education and Culture in 1971. The meeting, attended by Fidel Castro, declared that “all manifestations of homosexual deviations are to be firmly rejected and prevented from spreading.” Government workers found themselves unemployed if they were discovered to be homosexual, gay artists faced censorship, and many more were imprisoned for homosexual sex acts.
For a three-year period (1965-68), gay men were arrested and sent to labor in camps that went by the name UMAP, or Military Units to Aid Production. Designed as alternatives to military conscription for those who were conscientious objectors or found unfit for other reasons, the UMAPs became de facto prisons for Cuba’s gay population.
The camps were only closed after Fidel himself supposedly went undercover along with members of the Union of Young Communists (UJC) to investigate the treatment experienced by internees. In an interview with Cuban author Ignacio Ramonet in 2006, Castro would say the UMAPs weren’t intended to be places of internment or punishment, but “after a visit I discovered the distortion in some places…you can’t deny that there were prejudices against homosexuals.” Though hardly a full mea culpa, such a grudging admission did represent a change for the Cuban leader, who rarely ceded ground in the face of critique.
Even with the shuttering of the camps, homosexuality remained legally forbidden. A slow thaw began in 1975 though, when the Supreme Court of Cuba ruled workplace discrimination against gays would no longer be allowed. Decriminalization (but not legalization) of same-sex relations followed shortly after in 1979. The Mariel Boatlift of 1980, however, was another dark spot on the treatment of gays. Many homosexuals were among the small number of so-called “deviants” cast off that year. The latter part of the decade was a time of creeping advances in the cultural field, with the gradual appearance of literature and other materials referencing gay subject matter. In 1988, the Public Ostentation Act was finally repealed.
As in Vietnam, it was young communists who led the way in pushing deeper critiques of official policy. In 1992, the UJC passed a resolution condemning discrimination on the basis of sexuality. The following year, public education campaigns against homophobia were conducted for the first time. Fidel announced he did not consider homosexuality to be “a phenomenon of degeneration,” and declared his absolute opposition to “any form of repression, contempt, scorn, or discrimination with regard to homosexuals.” It was quite a turnaround from his 1965 declaration that no homosexual could ever embody “the conditions and requirements of a true Revolutionary, a true Communist militant.”
Today, another Castro leads the way
How far Cuba has advanced in the intervening years is evidenced by the fact that just last month, Mariela Castro, the daughter of current president Raúl Castro and niece of Fidel, led the march in Havana’s biggest LGBTQ pride parade to date. The event has become a regular fixture in the capital city’s calendar lately. For several years, Mariela has directed Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), where she has spearheaded campaigns for sexual healthcare and the protection of sexual minority rights.
A straight woman, she is hailed by some as the founder of the modern gay rights movement in Cuba. A member of the National Assembly, she has repeatedly proposed legislation to institute equal legal recognition for same-sex couples, with the backing of the Federation of Cuban Women and the Federation of Cuban Jurists.
She told a San Francisco audience four years ago that, “We first proposed marriage, but legal scholars, and some Communist Party members, were up in arms. So as not to lose the fight, we proposed equal recognition of same-sex couples.” The campaign to pass the legislation has not yet prevailed, but when passed, it will not only grant relationship rights, but also permanently enshrine discrimination protections for LGBTQ persons.
Gains have been made in other areas, though. 2008 saw the success of a push to include gender reassignment surgery as a covered procedure under Cuba’s public healthcare system.
The rhetoric from the top levels of the Communist Party and the state have now also officially embraced the cause of LGBTQ equality. According to Mariela, her father Raúl is on board with the programs and causes espoused by CENESEX.
And in perhaps the ultimate symbolic turn from the past, in 2010 Fidel Castro publicly accepted his share of blame for the Revolution’s early persecution of gays. Speaking to a Mexican journalist, he admitted there had been great injustices, and announced, “If someone is responsible, it’s me.” Two years later, Adela Hernandez, taking a seat in the municipal government of the city of Cabarien in Villa Clara, became Cuba’s first transgender person elected to public office.
Revolutions within revolutions
Vietnam and Cuba have each traversed uneven paths on the road toward LGBTQ equality. In different ways, they have gone from societies that either persecuted or neglected their sexual minority populations to ones that are embracing ever-more progressive legislation in their interests.
Further, both countries have become leaders on the LGBTQ front within their regions. In conservative and traditional Southeast Asia, Vietnam is setting the pace and upstaging some of its more economically-developed neighbors. Cuba, meanwhile, is working to shed the oppressive mindsets and laws inherited from its own pre-revolutionary past and which still characterize too many countries in the Caribbean.
Each of these two nations is in the midst of a revolution within the revolution, perhaps moving closer to the realization of their declared socialist aspirations of a society where exploitation and oppression of any kind are relegated to the past.
Photo: Top panel: Participants in a 2014 pride parade ride through the streets of Hanoi, where the annual event takes the form of a bicycle rally (VietPride). Bottom panel: Mariela Castro (center) participates in a pride parade with Cuba’s LGBTQ community in Havana in May 2015. | Desmond Boylan/AP