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Vietnam: Flawed on human rights, but a leader in gay rights

Vietnam's burgeoning gay rights movement got a major boost recently when the country's Ministry of Health came out in support of legalizing same-sex marriage. At a hearing to discuss marriage law reforms on April 16 in Hanoi, deputy minister of health Nguyen Viet Tien proposed that same-sex marriage be made legal immediately: "As human beings, homosexuals have the same rights as everyone else to live, eat, love, and be loved," he said, according to local media.

Surprisingly tender language from a government functionary--but then, much about the LGBT community in Vietnam defies expectations. Chastised for its human rights record and near the bottom of international surveys of press freedom and government corruption, Vietnam may well become the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage. Lawmakers have been actively reviewing the issue since July of last year. In addition to the health minister's statement, several other provincial governments and unions have publically expressed support for either full marriage rights or some form of legal recognition of same-sex partnerships.

Just as surprising is the speed at which the gay rights movement in Vietnam has developed. Marginalized only a few years ago, the LGBT community is not only finding support in the legal sphere but has been winning broad acceptance in the media and in public life. From Vietnam's first gay parade last August in Hanoi to an openly transgender contestant on last season's Vietnam Idol (an American Idol franchise), it's as if the closet door has exploded off its hinges. International attention grew in February of this year when Vietnamese photographer Maika Elan won a World Press Photo Award for her series The Pink Choice, documenting the lives of Vietnamese gay couples.

"I'm very proud of this movement," said Le Quang Binh, director of the Hanoi-based Institute for Social and Economic Environment (iSee), a non-profit group supporting the rights of minority groups in Vietnam. "The public opinion of LGBT [community] was very negative in the past. It has become very, very supportive and positive today. So I think that's a huge change just within five years. I think that's a really fast change for Vietnam, or even compared with any other country."

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