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10/09/2006 01:05 PM

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Vietnam's gays begin to gain recognition

Mon, 04 Aug 2003

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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.

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"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. Increase sparked media interest 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 in to an agonyaunt 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 specialises 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 behaviour that is incompatible with the good morals and time-honoured customs of Vietnam," it asserted in a March issue.

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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 website 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 rare 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." Those who do identify themselves as gay are careful about how, and to whom, they reveal their sexuality. Tam, a 24-year-old graphic design artist, has never told his parents, fellow students or work colleagues that he is gay. "If you don't officially announce it, then people are obliged to treat you equally," said the slightly-built amateur DJ. No laws pertaining gays in Vietnam There are no laws or regulations on homosexuality or homosexuals in Vietnam, and no mention of gays as a risk group for HIV and Aids. Donn Colby believes the omission of homosexuals from public HIV prevention messages has encouraged MSM to underestimate their vulnerability to infection. The misconception is worrying, given that Colby's survey of 219 MSM concluded that members of this group have multiple sexual partners, do not use condoms regularly and are at high risk of contracting HIV. "But things are changing slowly," said Colby. "A programme (funded by the Ford Foundation) on men's sexual health in Nha Trang includes MSM." Male prostitution and public sex venues are widespread in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Zoo's, parks, lakes, swimming pools and saunas have been identified by state-run media as venues for sex between men. But while police find it hard to take action against gay activity in public places, they move decisively on male brothels. One of Ho Chi Minh City's few male brothels was closed down last year and its owner slapped with a 10-year prison sentence. The mainstream gay scene in the southern metropolis is also facing hard times, with its only gay club shuttered, ostensibly for refurbishment. Minh, a 24 year-old architect with a French boyfriend, expressed his frustration at the gay community's lack of clear identity. "I just think we should think more about us as a group. We should let people know that we exist," he said. "Coming out is not enough. We need a voice." AFP

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