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Gay marriage puts a smile on Vietnam public's face
Global Times | June 21, 2011 20:45
By James Palmer
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Illustration: Liu Rui

Vietnam and China share a lot in common. They both spent decades fighting against foreign occupation. They're both socialist countries. And they both believe in traditional Confucian values, such as education and family.

So a recent social breakthrough in Vietnam should give hope to one minority that can have a hard time of things in both countries. Phi and Pin, two Vietnamese men, recently got married in the country's first gay wedding. 

The couple, who jointly own two fashion stores, look downright adorable in their matching suits, and have been together for years. But more importantly, both their families turned out for the marriage, and gave it their whole-hearted blessing.  

For gay Chinese men, it's often the burden of family values that prevents them from living openly with their partners. The pressure to get married and produce an heir is immense, especially for those without siblings. 

Chinese gay men and lesbians sometimes pair up to marry and have kids, putting on a show for their families.
 Yet the psychological burden of living a lie can be enormous, and Chinese social scientists report a tragically high suicide rate among gay men. 

Hong Kong is already far more liberal on social issues than the Chinese mainland, and gays and lesbians there have an easier time coming out to their families. 

But Hong Kong has been part of the wider world for much longer, and the generation gap is smaller. Vietnam, with its often conservative older generation, is perhaps a better example.

Both Pin and Phi went to each other's houses to ask their partners' parents for permission to get married, just as a traditional heterosexual couple would.  The Vietnamese Ngiao Sao online newspaper reports that originally "Pin's parents were shocked and sad because they couldn't do anything to make their son normal. But they silently accepted their son's lifestyle and felt at ease when they saw Pin living in happiness." 

The marriage was an even harder obstacle for them to overcome, and Pin's father at first advised the two to be happy just living together. But his son told him, "I've found happiness for myself. Male or female doesn't matter, what's important is that the person I marry can be by my side throughout my life." 

These words of love were enough to convince his dad.

There's little difference between conservative and concerned Vietnamese parents and their Chinese counterparts. 

One example might not be enough to show a trend, but the reactions both in person and online in Vietnam have been overwhelmingly supportive. The comments on the Ngiao Sao article are almost entirely positive, with only two mildly negative ones noting "I can't support this,"and "This isn't appropriate." 

There's two lessons here for the gay community in China. 

The first is that even conservative parents can be won over, and that ingrained family values may still be flexible enough to allow for non-traditional relationships. It's understandable that people are afraid of the judgments of others, but the fear may be greater than the reality. To take an example from elsewhere, British writer Philip Hensher reports coming out to his parents in the northern British city of Sheffield in the 1970s, where the prevailing culture was extremely macho, and that within three years his boyfriend was helping his dad fix cars.

The second is the power of positive media images. The pictures of Phi and Pin published in Vietnam's media are adorable, and it's hard to deny the value of their relationship after seeing the images of them together. Many of the online comments report that the story changed their mind on the gay marriage issue. 

One noted, "To be honest, before now I've always been prejudiced against homosexuals, but now that I know Pin and Phi's story, I can understand it. That's a beautiful picture and I wish you happiness as days become months, and every day a smile on your lips."

Maybe it's overly optimistic, but I believe such images can have an equal impact in China. Support for gay rights is growing in Chinese forums, and homophobic comments are nowhere near as common as on the US Internet. 

With a younger generation increasingly open to new possibilities, and an older one that, as in Vietnam, may be able to put aside old prejudices, gay Chinese couples may be able to live happily ever after.

The author is a historian and a copy editor with the Global Times.

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