“Oppressive.” “Brutal.” “Terrible and worsening.” These were some of the fierce editorial lightning bolts to scorch Vietnam’s human-rights reputation last week, hurled in the wake of a surprise 75-minute White House audience for the country’s President Truong Tan Sang. But in Hanoi, capital of the single-party communist state, a silver lining could come from an unlikely source: gay pride. Rainbows will be out in full force for the nation’s second ever Viet Pride festival on Sunday, when a 200-strong bicycle parade will cruise down streets still decorated with hammer-and-sickle billboards, passing landmarks like the resting place of national hero Ho Chi Minh and a statue of Lenin.
Naturally, such colorful scenes mask greater woes that continue to blight Vietnam, which was recently dubbed by former U.S. Congressman Joseph Cao the “worst violator of human rights in Southeast Asia,” thereby trumping onetime pariah Burma. But nevertheless, the country has become an implausible trailblazer for LGBT equality. In October, the National Assembly will convene to debate gay marriage following strong backing from the Ministry of Health (if the bill passes, Vietnam will be the first and only Asian country to allow such unions). The movement has enjoyed a rising tide of support in 2013, buoyed by the standout success of the nation’s first gay sitcom, a World Press Photo Award for Vietnamese photographer Maika Elan’s depiction of gay couples and even praise from the U.N. for the startling progress.
But despite this so-called Pink Spring, campaign groups say the day when LGBT individuals can feel free from discrimination remains a long way off. “Life is still very difficult for gay people in Vietnam,” says Nguyen Anh Thuan, former deputy director of USAID-backed project Pathways, which offers community-based HIV support for LGBT individuals. Thuan has been at the forefront of Vietnam’s gay-rights movement for 18 years both professionally — he delivered the country’s first TED talk on gay rights in 2011 and has worked closely with activist Pham Thi Hue, a 2004 TIME Asia Hero — and personally. He became one of the first Vietnamese to admit being gay during a series of “coming-out” interviews with national newspapers in 2010, one year after joining the country’s small clutch of single gay fathers when he adopted a son. “The reaction to my coming out was incredibly positive — the public loved it, but the media still plays a large role in demonizing homosexuality. It is often referred to as ‘immoral’ and gay victims of violent crime are often cast as the architects of their own misfortune,” he adds.
Misunderstandings remain a major stumbling block to social acceptance of the LGBT community. At a recent gay-rights conference, think-tank leader Le Quang Binh quoted figures suggesting that 48% of Vietnamese believed homosexuality could be cured and 57% thought it was a mere social fad. Viet Pride founder Nguyen Thanh Tam recalls how at last year’s event, “People were running up to us asking why we were carrying rainbow flags. They wanted to know what product we were marketing.” LGBT activist Tam says police make life particularly hard for lesbians by hauling them in for questioning on charges that their identity cards list their gender as female but, in the cops’ words, “they look like boys.” Social confirmity remains a big barrier to the LGBT movement, she explains, as “people are taught it’s bad to be different, so they have difficulty understanding those in the minority.”
Whatever positives do come out of Saturday’s rally, the LGBT rights movement is still just a pleasant outlier among a bleak set of human-rights statistics. Dozens of dissident bloggers have been arrested already this year, while Human Rights Watch claims at least 150 political prisoners remain in detention. Among the most high-profile cases is that of the campaigning journalist known as Dieu Cay. Suffering a raft of serious health problems that require round-the-clock care, the activist is serving a 12-year sentence for “disseminating antistate information and materials,” and on June 22, embarked on an ongoing hunger strike to protest his treatment.
“Hanoi has incentives to be open on a social issue that is decidedly apolitical — this burnishes their international reputation on human rights at a low cost,” says Nguyen Trinh, organizer of banned pro-democracy party Viet Tan. Trinh believes the softening stance is part of a concerted ploy for Vietnam to win a seat on the 2014–16 U.N. Human Rights Council. “Whereas if Hanoi were to expand the space for freedom of expression, assembly, and association, they’d risk empowering a very vocal and growing political opposition.” The flags will be out in force this weekend, but one fears it will be a long time before Vietnam’s dissident community gets to see another rainbow.