The Confrontation of Heterosexism in Vietnam

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For many years, sexual-related issues, specifically sexual discrimination – unequal treatments towards someone due to his or her sexual identity– have been some of the topics that are most discussed and highly debatable among researchers, authority, educational practitioners and people in general not only in Vietnam but everywhere in the world. Sexual minorities or those whose sexual orientations, behaviours and identities are considered different from the majority, have continuously been fighting for their rights to be treated simply as humans and not more or less because of their identities. One of the biggest problems these groups of people were and are facing is heterosexism, which can be defined as the ideology that only see heterosexuality as normal and natural, while represents other alternatives as unhealthy and harmful to the society. Furthermore, heterosexism and homophobia, which is the individual's attitudes and behaviours that reflect heterosexism, are also seen as discriminations against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. [1] [2]

Homosexuality overtime


In the prehistoric period in Vietnam, sexual activities and explorations, including homosexuality, were encouraged through local festivals to promote fertility and prosperity and not until the arrival of Confucianism and other religions and ideologies spreading mainly from China that homosexuality became forbidden.

Homosexuality has been seen way back in Vietnam's history through the practice of cross-dressing, however, men took on the roles of women were more common than women becoming men. “Bóng cái” or “đồng cô” are men who dressed as women and known to be witch doctors are most commonly seen. They are believed by many, of having the ability to communicate with the spiritual forces due to their ambiguous sexuality. [3]

14th - 19th century

In the 14th century, the first case of transgender is recorded in the Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu mentioned a woman in Nghe An, Vietnam who transformed into a man and a member of royal family, An Vuong Tuan who loved to be dressed in woman's clothing.

In the 16th century, during the Mac Dynasty, homosexual relationships were first recorded in the Hong Duc Thien Chinh Thu about two women having sexual intercourse.

There were many royal family members who were recognized as homosexuals as well. For instance, King Khai Dinh (1885-1933) who had twelve wives but was attracted to men. He liked to wear jewelry and dressed like a woman. Even Prince Vinh Thuy who took over the throne after Khai Dinh, was known to be his adopted son because he did not want to have sexual intercourse with women.

In the 19th century, during the French colonial era in Vietnam, homosexuality, transgender and cross-dressing were explicitly identified and discussed as sinful concepts through Western literature. However, a lot of the homosexual activities were occurring between European men and young Vietnamese boys and since then, the French term "pédé", as in "pédéraste", emerged to described these individuals. Today, this term is used widely by Vietnamese as a label for any person whose sexual orientation is different from the social norms. [3]


In the early years, Vietnamese culture was largely influenced by its neighboring country to the North, China and its characteristics were adapted to Chinese cultural traditions and religions. [4] In that, a Chinese system of ethics called Confucianism arrived in Vietnam in the 10th century through China's control over many regions of Vietnam spreading Confucian rituals, values through the writing system. However, not until around the 15th and 18th centuries that Confucianism became more dominantly penetrated into Vietnamese culture.[5] Confucianism proposed a sociopolitical views on the values in which a good person and a good government possessed. It mainly focuses on the idea of hierarchical social order and the patriarchal family. It emphasizes the importance of a heterosexual marriage and having children, preferably boys to continue the family lineage because only boys are considered descendants. Furthermore, the concept of family are highly related to a person's self-worth and their social position in the community, therefore, if someone cannot fulfilled their duty of creating a family that fits into the social norms, this will bring shame upon not only themselves but also their family. Although, same-sex relationships is not criminalized, it threatens the Confucianism's values on family and therefore, homosexuality is seen as a negative and unacceptable concept.[6]

20th century

At this time period, homosexuality was not known and discussed explicitly or publicly due to the hegemony of heterosexuality in Vietnamese society and so, there were many people who have not heard of this concept and were not aware of its existence. Not until two women from Vinh Long who approached the authorities and expressed their desire to get married to each other that homosexuality matter gets the attention that it deserves. However, the attempt seemed to be leading to the opposite direction as it resulted in the amendment of Marriage and Family Law in that same-sex marriage was officially banned. By doing so, the National Assembly promoted the heterosexist cultural norm which also meant the denial of the human equality rights for non-heterosexuals. [7]

Between the year 1985 to 1986, Đổi Mới – a significant economic transformation in Vietnam – was introduced with the goal of maintaining socialism while shifting its economy to more market-oriented which opened up more opportunities for Vietnam to do businesses with foreign countries. However, this also means that there would be parts of the foreign cultures penetrating into Vietnamese culture and some of them are considered as a threat to Vietnamese values and traditions. In order to minimized the exposure to these 'poisonous' Western influences during this time period, the Steering Committee on Elimination of Social Evils was established with the purpose of preventing and eliminating the 'social evils' or 'te nan xa hoi' which includes homosexuality. [4]


Vietnamese culture, like other Asian cultures, is influenced by generational circumstances. The effects that older generations' values and opinions had on younger generations were acknowledged to be one of the big factors that aid in building the taboo nature of homosexuality as elders in Vietnam usually live closed to their younger generations and any unconventional ideas are often hidden from these people and eventually, their younger generations are also less exposed to these ideas.[8]

Social Rejection

In Vietnamese society, heterosexism created the default that automatically assumed that heterosexuality is normative and non-heterosexuality, such as homosexuality, is therefore abnormal, undesirable and further been portrayed as a social evil or a social disease or even a disability of physical and mental health.

There have been clear evidences that proved these negative depictions of homosexuality definitely existed in the Vietnamese society. One good example is taken from the media outlets such as the newspapers in the years 2004, 2006 and 2008 in which 41% of newspaper articles was found to depict homosexuals negatively and many of which mentioned homosexuality as a disease that should be cured. [7]

Furthermore, not until Vietnam's 1990's HIV epidemic and the social evil campaign that homosexuality became a major concern. One of the most vulnerable groups of the 1990's HIV epidemic was the same-sex men which led to more stigmas placing on homosexuality, especially on gay men, and further reinforced the idea that the existence of these sexualities are abnormal and that they are social evil. [9]

Family Rejection

Family response to the individual's sexual orientation is very important in determining their mental health outcomes and well-being in general. There are studies that showed the relationship between family rejection at adolescence and the use of illegal drugs, depression, attempted suicide and sexual health risk by homosexual young adults.[10] Therefore, it is fair to say that the family support or denial does indeed have great influences on each individuals especially those who are exposed to vulnerable experiences, especially at the young age.

In Vietnam, due to the influences of Confucianism, the understandings of sexuality and family roles originated from this ideology are deeply infiltrated into the parental generations. Many parents believed that it is their son's responsibility to continue the family lineage through heterosexual marriage and it is their daughter's duty to produce a son to help make that happen. Furthermore, since each members of the family, especially the eldest son, is seen as the face of the family, their behaviours reflect the family as a whole. That being said, non-heterosexuality are perceived negatively as if a member is a homosexual, for example, the family or the parents would be criticized by society for their failures to raise the child well which directly attack their dignity and the 'face' of the family. [7]

Therefore, it is very difficult for parents living in this specific culture to accept their child's 'abnormal' sexuality and so rejections are mostly likely to occurred.

Self Rejection

"Internalized homonegativity is the adoption and acceptance of homophobic attitudes, beliefs, or actions within the LGBT community toward themselves and others" [4]

As mentioned in Nguyen and Angelique (2017), even before people identify their sexual orientations, they unconsciously "incorporated a toxic anti-homosexual bias into [their] psyche" which means they already set in mind that homosexuality is undesirable. In the process of sexuality formation, parental and social rejection are the main reasons that amplify people' guilt towards themselves and make them feel more isolated and marginalized as they fear being condemned by the community. Furthermore, according to the findings in their work on LGBT identity in Vietnam, the more one is exposed and learn the values and practices of Confucianism, such as prioritizing family honor and wishes over self's authenticity, the greater chances they direct homonegativity towards themselves for not being a heterosexual and follow the norms.


Media/ Popular culture

In recent years, coming out on media outlets such as TV shows and Youtube has becoming very popular among LGBT youth in Vietnam. These individuals want to find a space for them to appropriately and widely spread the message for sexual equality and these outlets seem to be great options. TV shows such as "Nguoi Ay La Ai" which is one of the most watched Vietnamese TV shows gets a great amount of attention from people in Vietnam and Vietnamese living in other places in the world. Aside from helping women find new romantic relationships, this TV show brings men of LGBT communities to speak about their experiences of being sexual minorities and to publicly coming out and so creates a space for the LGBT community to spread the message that just like everyone else, they are human beings who want to love and be loved and not "social devils" as portrayed in Vietnamese culture through stereotypes and stigmas for a long time.

"Come out- Buoc ra anh sang", "Just Love", "Nghe cau vong noi- LGBT Viet" are TV shows dedicated for the sexual minority population in Vietnam where they get the chance to share their own stories such as when they realized they are not heterosexual, their encounters of homophobia, medical, surgical intervention experiences and discussions on social stigmas, stereotypes and rejections. [11]

Vietnamese held their first pride parade in Ha Noi – Vietnam's capital city – on the 5th of August, 2012 [12]

  1. Irwin, Lyn (2007). "Homophobia and heterosexism: implications for nursing and nursing practice". Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing. 25(1): 70–76.
  2. Obrien, Johnny (2002). "Heterosexism and Homophobia". International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences: 6672–6676.
  3. 3.0 3.1 UNDP, USAID (2014). Being LGBT in Asia: Viet Nam Country Report. Bangkok.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Nguyen, Tam; Angelique, Holly (2017). "Internalized Homonegativity, Confucianism, and Self-Esteem at the Emergence of an LGBTQ Identity in Modern Vietnam". Journal of Homosexuality. 64:12: 1617–1631.
  5. Khuat, Thu. (1998). Study on Sexuality in Vietnam: The Known and Unknown Isues. DOI:10.13140/RG.2.2.15215.84640
  6. Nguyen, T.Q., Poteat, T., Bandeen-Roche, K. et al. Arch Sex Behav (2016) 45: 1329.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Paul Horton (2014). ‘I thought I was the only one’: the misrecognition of LGBT youth in contemporary Vietnam. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 16:8, 960-973. DOI: 10.1080/13691058.2014.924556
  8. Wong, N., & Menkes, D. B. (2018). Ethnic youth and sexual identity: the role of clinical and social support for ‘double minorities.’ Australasian Psychiatry, 26(2), 181–183.
  9. Paul Horton & Helle Rydstrom (2019) Reshaping boundaries: Family politics and GLBTQ resistance in urban Vietnam, Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 15:3, 290-305, DOI: 10.1080/1550428X.2018.1518739
  10. Ryan, Caitlin; Russell, Stephen; Huebner, David; Diaz, Rafael; Sanchez, Jorge (2010). "Family Acceptance in Adolescence and the Health of LGBT Young Adults". Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing. 23(4): 205–213.
  11. Da, Ly; Cao, Tung (2018). "Show về đồng tính, chuyển giới tràn ngập sóng". Viet Nam Moi.
  12. "Vietnam's first gay pride parade helps unite the LGBT community". Agence France-Presse.