BY C.J. Atkins
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.
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.
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 were gay, straight, or anything else). A semi-official state of neglect and willful ignorance prevailed.
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 spark a more coherent LGBTQ movement in the country. HIV education programs became the places where gay men and transgender persons 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 the 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.
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 that 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.
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 norms 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 capitalist bourgeois society.
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.”
How far Cuba has advanced in the intervening years is evidenced by the fact that the last few years, Mariela Castro, the daughter of former president Raúl Castro and niece of Fidel, has been leading the march in Havana’s now annual LGBTQ pride parades. For several years, she 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 Castro has announced plans to put same-sex marriage on the agenda when Cuba’s constitution comes up for amendment in July this year.
Gains have been made in other areas, though. In 2008, gender reassignment surgery was included as a covered procedure under Cuba’s public healthcare system.
But perhaps the ultimate symbolic turn from the past already came some eight years ago, when 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.
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 close behind pace-setter Taiwain, which will soon fully legalize same-sex unions. 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. (IPA Service)
The writer is the managing editor at People’s World.