It is a paradox. Given the abysmal record in Vietnam of protecting basic human rights, one would think the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) persons would be a far-off, hard-fought frontier. However, Vietnam is now considered to be the leader of LGBTI rights not just in the Southeast region but also in the whole continent of Asia! So much so that the less palatable civil rights issues are now using LGBTI topic as an entry point in Vietnam, quite the opposite of how it is in most of the authoritarian regimes.
The rise of the LGBTI movement and its ability to influence policy and law in Vietnam defy the mainstream understanding of social movement building. At the same time, it provides an insight into the changing nature of authoritarianism in current global setting. In order to understand this paradox, one needs to rethink social movement building, re-evaluate the characteristics of a non-democratic polity, and recognize the importance of political and economic opportunity as a tool.
The state of affairs
Vietnam is a one-party state, dominated for decades by the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). Vietnam scored 20 out of 100 in the 2019 Freedom in the World index by Freedom House. According to the report, basic civil and political rights including freedom of expression, association, and peaceful public assembly are severely restricted. Independent media is not allowed as the government controls TV, radio, newspapers, and other publications. Vietnam prohibits the formation of independent labor unions, political associations, and human rights organizations. Police frequently use excessive force to disperse peaceful public protests that criticize the government.
Activists questioning government policies or projects, or seeking to defend local resources or land, face daily harassment, intrusive surveillance, house arrest, travel bans, arbitrary detention, and interrogation. Thugs, apparently collaborating with police, have increasingly launched physical attacks against activists with impunity. In 2018, Vietnam put on trial at least 12 people for “conducting propaganda against the state” with sentences ranging from 4 to 12 years in prison.
The government restricts religious practice through legislation, registration requirements, and surveillance. Religious groups are required to get approval from, and register with, the government, and operate under government-controlled management boards. Police monitor, harass, and sometimes violently crack down on religious groups operating outside government-controlled institutions.
The situation of the LGBTI community
Though modern Vietnam has had few explicit legal restrictions on same-sex sexual activity or regulations mandating unequal status for sexual minorities, it never 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. Even as late as 2002, a report published in a government newspaper declared that homosexuality was a “social evil.”
However, the past decade has seen many policy changes in favor of LGBTI rights in Vietnam, most notably the repeal of a heteronormative definition of marriage. In 2015, the Southeast Asian nation officially abolished regulations that prevent “marriage between people of the same sex.”
Near the end of the same year, Vietnam also passed a law allowing trans individuals to receive gender reassignment surgery and to register under their preferred gender. Though the law still poses challenges for trans people, Human Rights Watch called it a “small, but significant step toward the recognition of transgender people’s rights.”
Viet Pride has been celebrated annually across the country since 2012, and it seems likely that Vietnamese activists’ examples have encouraged inclusivity elsewhere in the region.
An apparent conundrum?
There are multiple contextual complexities at play. While the country may seem to be a highly centralized, one-party state, a closer look reveals that the political and economic power is gradually becoming decentralized. Due to administrative and economic reforms, provincial authorities are increasingly becoming powerful, having more leverage at the national level. In addition, there are factions within the CPV that struggle for influence and control, as well as new powerful private interests created as a result of liberalisation and new market opportunities.
In 1986, the Communist Party of Vietnam formally initiated a process of developing a ‘market-oriented socialist economy under state guidance’ known as Đổi Mới (renewal) to become what Jonathan London refers to as a ‘market-Leninist’ system. Economic and political reforms under Đổi Mới have spurred rapid economic growth and development and transformed Vietnam from one of the world’s poorest nations to a lower middle-income country. According to World Bank, the extreme poverty rate is estimated to have declined to below 3 percent. Following 6.8 percent growth in 2017, preliminary data indicate that GDP growth accelerated to 7.1 percent in 2018, underpinned by a broad-based pickup in economic activity.
Vietnam is counting on economic growth through the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and bilateral free trade agreements with the European Union and South Korea, and the tourism industry is set to be one of the cornerstones of growth. An LGBTI-friendly Vietnam would undoubtedly make the country a more attractive destination to a huge segment of the tourist market. Since the court ruling on same-sex marriage, the number of foreign customers rose by 40% for Gay Hanoi Tours, a travel agency specializing in LGBTI tourism.
The attraction, of course, would not be limited to the gay community as it would also improve the country’s image in the minds of large numbers of heterosexual tourists. Moreover, it would do Vietnam no harm in attracting investment from Western companies that actively support LGBT rights. Bloomberg estimates that the acceptance of same-sex marriage could boost the income of Vietnam’s tourist industry by as much as $9 billion.
The Vietnam unit of PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2015 started a GLEE, or “gay, lesbian and everyone else,” network in the hope of promoting equal treatment among its employees through parties, concerts, and other events. 200 of the unit’s 800 employees joined the network. By creating an inclusive environment for everyone regardless of sexual orientation, the company hopes that better understanding and openness can be achieved. This approach is supported by a research done by World Bank on the economic cost of homophobia in India. The study, released in 2014, estimated the cost to be 30.8 billion US dollars annually.
A political mileage?
The demand from the LGBTI community was simple: they wanted recognition, equal rights, and protection similar to what their heterosexual counterpart enjoyed. To this end, they wanted the laws and social attitude to change. But those engaged in this policy field in Vietnam do not intend to achieve, and do not realize, political change in terms of political structures and the power monopoly of the Vietnamese Communist Party. While there is a growing intersectional human rights movement, the LGBTI groups have remained myopically focused so far.
As such, LGBTI issues, including the issue of equal rights, are not seen by those in power as endangering the Party’s rule and the government’s position. Those in power could afford those steps without any risk in terms of their political rule. In fact, LGBTI rights served as a political mileage when the Vietnam government was lobbying for a seat at the United Nation’s Human Rights Council in 2013. And despite its worsening human rights record and global condemnation, it was able to win the membership at the Council. Since then, the Vietnamese delegates has done a commendable job in supporting LGBTI issues at the UN.
While Vietnam is a one-party socialist state, this doesn’t necessarily determine the attitude of all party members or bureaucrats to a particular policy issue. The LGBTI community in Vietnam seems to have used this faction within the party as a ‘political opportunity’ in their favor. When the government published an anti-LGBTI article in the newspaper in 2002, 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.” Moreover, at a hearing to discuss marriage law reforms in 2013, deputy minister of health Nguyen Viet Tien proposed that same-sex marriage be made legal immediately.
Another reason for the acceptance of the LGBT community is that Vietnam’s predominant religions aren’t outspoken against homosexuality. More importantly, majority of the population (almost 80%) do not believe in god, and the dominant Buddhist believers (12%) do not denounce homosexuality. The lack of religious freedom and strict surveillance of religious groups mean that religion does not play a role in the public and state affairs. This has enabled the LGBTI rights group to engage in public debate and create a pro-LGBT public opinion.
Contrary to what the literature on authoritarianism says, the Vietnamese government seemed to have paid attention to the public opinion. The LGBTI organizations worked a lot with the media right from the beginning. They analyzed the newspapers to see how stigmatizing and discriminating their articles were. The movement had primarily focused on public education and raising awareness of the rights of LGBT people. As a result, an October 2016 opinion poll showed that a plurality (45%) of Vietnamese supported the legalization of same-sex marriage, with 25% against and 30% answering “don’t know”.
Must repression require aggression?
It seems clear that the Vietnamese LGBTI movement has achieved significant political influence in a very short period without resorting to violence or even being very assertive. The movement has managed to get their issue of same-sex marriage and protection of family rights onto the political agenda, to the extent that a routine revision of the Marriage and Family Law took place, and the Constitution was changed following a nationwide debate on same-sex marriage.
Perhaps the political context of Vietnam should not be considered repressive or authoritarian and therefore not requiring assertive tactics for change to occur. However, this would mean that the definition of an open, democratic environment would need to be modified such that it included a one-party state without competitive elections and with a strong and active repressive machinery. Such a redefinition seems unjustified.
Instead, what this case does is to highlight an internal inconsistency within the political mediation model, which simultaneously hypothesizes that repression necessitates aggressive tactics. It also highlights that ‘challengers need to alter strategies and forms to address specific political contexts, such as the level of democratization in the policy, the partisan regime in power, and the development of bureaucratic authority surrounding the issue at hand’.
This appears to be true not only for Vietnam. A similar trend can be observed elsewhere in the world, especially in Cuba, where LGBTI rights have advanced significantly in recent years. From a country with history of discrimination and violence against the LGBTI people, Cuba has now become a beacon of hope for the LGBTI community in the region.
Vietnam and Cuba have each traversed uneven paths on the road toward LGBTI 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. 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.
 Gainsborough, M. (2010). Vietnam: Rethinking the State, published August 2010 by Zed Books.
 London, Jonathan D. 2009. “Viet Nam and the Making of Market Leninism,” The Pacific Review, Vol. 22 No. 3 July 2009: 373–397.
 International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association: The Personal and the Political: Attitudes to LGBTI People Around the World (Geneva; ILGA, October 2016).
 Amenta, Edwin & Caren, Neal & Chiarello, Elizabeth & Su, Yang. (2010). The Political Consequence of Social Movements. Annual Review of Sociology. 36. 10.1146/annurev-soc-070308-120029.
Shakhawat Hossain Rajeeb is a gay rights activist who has worked with Boys of Bangladesh for 13 years before being forced to exile to Sweden, where he currently works with RFSL, the national Swedish LGBTQ organization.