Viceroy Le Van Duyet helped unify Vietnam, ruled the prosperous southern part of the country, and was publicly known to be gay. Photo: Wikimedia.
“Sick.” “Abberrations.” “Animals with unclear sexuality.”
Reactions from a small but vicious segment of Vietnamese-Americans to the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling are a stark reminder of what happened in 2013 go with the Tet parade in Little Saigon.
Back then, a group of organizers called the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California put together a parade marching down Bolsa Avenue in the heart of Little Saigon on the occasion of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.
Claiming to represent the Vietnamese-Amercian community, they got a lot of local businesses to sponsor the event on that basis. But when a group of Viet LGBT sought to join the parade, they were turned down.
The LGBT groups had lots of support. Members of the Westminster City Council, the Vietnamese-American Chamber of Commerce, the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations (which organizes the separate and successful annual Tet Festival), and even their biggest financial backer all asked for the LGBT group to be included.
No such luck. The Federation threw about words like “sick,” “against nature,” “pedophile,” “harm our children” like Gospel truth, and barred the group from marching.
Well, happy ending, eventually. In 2014, the organizers voted 51-36 to allow the LGBT contingent to march. In 2015, a new generation of younger organizers took over the parade, and they haven’t had to revisit the issue since.
Just as that bad memory receded into the past, the ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges brought some of that hatred back.
To be sure, that’s a minority. The Vietnamese-American part of social media is just as full of rainbows as any other.
But there’s also viciousness.
One Bao Huynh from Westminster wrote of gay parents, “If the kids were born from artificial insemination wouldn’t know who was mother, who was father! What a disordered incest was!!!” 56 people happily “liked” his statement.
They even went after people who used Facebook’s “celebratepride” app to overlay their profile photo with the rainbow flag.
Orchid Lam Quynh is a math professor, TV personality, and a proud mother of twin babies. When she changed her photo, someone she didn’t know even attacked the babies, commenting in English, “where did the twins come from? You make me sick.” (“To answer his question, the twins came from LOVE,” she wrote.)
The gay-friendly reaction is consistent with Vietnamese tradition. It is heavily influenced by Buddhism, and Buddhism has no problem with homosexuality. The book of monastic code Vinaya does not allow monks to be homosexual, but says nothing about lay people, and neither do other sacred texts in Vietnamese Buddhism.
One of Vietnam’s most popular pop deity is Le Van Duyet (1764-1832). The warrior general was given the rule of Southern Vietnam after he helped unify the country and establish Vietnam’s last dynasty (the Nguyen). Le Van Duyet was publicly known to be gay (some researchers think he might be a hermaphrodite, or a eunuch), and still tens of thousands of people to make pilgrims to his tomb each year during Tet.
That does not mean Vietnamese are enlightened.
If any nationality on Earth harbors the greatest misunderstanding of LGBTQ-ness, it’s the Vietnamese.
My favorite incident was when I spoke with Thuy Uyen, a seventy-something cai luong star who played the mother of a gay man in the independent Vietnamese-American film Sad Fish. One point the film made was that homosexuality is not an illness. But when I asked her about her role, she said, “I think of the boy as my own son, and if my son has the gay illness, I’d still love him because he’s sick.”
Apparently sweet old Grandma didn’t get it. Her idea of homosexuality as a sickness was so well embedded in her brain that the film’s point couldn’t sink in.
So when did incorrect but otherwise harmless pity become all-out hatred?
My theory is that the change comes from two despotic forces, colonialism and communism.
Vietnam was invaded by France in the mid 19th century. These new rulers brought with them the rigid anti-homosexuality of the Catholic Church, and the most severe form of it too. This prejudice even spreads to non-Catholics because, after all, the French ruled the whole country.
But the French have been gone for a long time, so where did the rest of Vietnamese pick up this prejudice? There’s an easy answer: The communists and their adoption of most things Stalinist. You know, that murderous regime that threw homosexuals in the gulag.
As recently as 2002, Vietnam still listed homosexuality as a vice to be banned, on the same list as prostitution and drug use.
On the day of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, reporter Thuy Tran told how one of her earliest assignments was to write about the gay community, and that was how she learned of the discrimination they faced. Then she asked the official in charge of HIV/AIDS and social vices why there were no AIDS prevention counseling, and he told her not to worry, “Vietnam has only a handful of homosexual people and we detained them all.”
It is this dual learned prejudice that many Vietnamese brought with them to the U.S., where it is reinforced by American conservatism. In Vietnam, homosexuality is taught in school textbook as an example of “bourgeois decadence” that will bring about the collapse of capitalism. Doesn’t that sound just like how conservatives talk about the latest ruling?
The irony is, even as the Vietnamese fought to eject the French from their country, and a near unanimity of Vietnamese-Americans are anti-communist, they have picked up a lot of bad habits from those ruling regimes, and being anti-gay is one of them.
Hao Nhien Vu authored a popular blog about Little Saigon politics called The Bolsavik. Before that, he was an editor for Nguoi Viet Daily News.