“And I was afraid myself, because I could not make sense of that feeling, and there was nobody there to explain to me, that it just means you are gay and it’s ok, nobody said it, such a simple thing”
Interviewing Tam was like navigating a sea of knowledge and culture interconnected by psychological and philosophical questions. Her poised voice and determined attitude demonstrate her strong willed character. Her search for equality and her personal experience coming out led to her becoming one of the first LGBT activists in her country. Tam narrates her quest for individuality, for a more equal society and her path challenging the way things were done in Vietnam.
In Vietnam, sexual diversity remains taboo as in many other countries in Southeast Asia. Misunderstanding and social stigmas are still widespread. Insinuation, ridicule, parents’ disapproval, and humiliation are common experiences of LGBT people. The LGBT movement has been very recent, working only for the past four or five years and still remains controversial.
“Your individuality is secondary, everything you do you want your community to approve it and fit the norm, even if you have to compromise your identity.”
When talking about her life she said that she had various discriminatory experiences (especially with older people) and she felt she was not able to fit in during middle school and high school since she had to conform to gender roles. It affected the way she saw herself and how she perceived the world.
“The belief of a ‘just world’ just ended there, it was a hard time for me to cope with it, so I graduated from secondary school hating the world, and thinking that there was nobody like me.”
This led to a suicide attempt and that same evening she decided to come out. She spent some time researching LGBT literature, watching the L Word, and contemplating plans for graduate school. At the same time she got engaged in activism and volunteered with an NGO in Vietnam while working in Singapore.
“I came out to myself and my friends in 2010, so it was kind of a whole new world unveiling in front of me”.
Bringing it home
In the summer of 2011 she attended Stockholm Pride sponsored by the Swedish Embassy. The experience was inspirational and she thought that an activity like this one must happen in Vietnam at some point.
“The most important thing to me when I was at Stockholm pride, was that the day that I was walking in the pride march together with other people I felt like even though I am gay, I am equal like everyone else and I do have a place in this world, and I am no less than heterosexual people. As far as people working together and working hard for equality, one day a society like Vietnam can achieve a state of equality”.
After this experience in 2011, she quit her job in Singapore to devote her time fully to organize Pride through a local NGO. The first VietPride she organized was in 2012 in Hanoi, the Capital city of Vietnam.
Today she has organized VietPride two years in a row and will continue next year. VietPride is composed of indoors activities that present to the public a series of LGBT films and talk-shows with guest speakers sharing their experiences and a bicycle rally.
Tam said that Pride was a very foreign concept for Vietnamese culture. The organizations that previously worked around this subject have awareness raising activities, but she feels that they are scattered all over the place, that there is no symbol for the LGBT movement and there is a lack of connection between the LGBT Movement in Vietnam and globally.
“Pride is so significant for every society because it is so symbolic, it is an event where sexual diversity is celebrated”.
This experience has been received positively by LGBT community and allies, while attracting international attention and slowly becoming a symbol of the LGBT movement in Vietnam.
“In a country where we do not have the right to peaceful assembly and expression, VietPride is a way to advocate for all minority rights”
In 2014, VietPride will shift its agenda, since in the first two years it was geared toward raising awareness about sexual diversity. This year they will focus on building solidarity and connection in the LGBT community, getting together grassroots activist from the all over the country in Hanoi to get them to know more about each other, in order for this to radiate to the whole community. At the end of the event they will create an assessment report to inform the future agenda for Pride groups and NGOs working on the subject.
Changes in activism
Before she did Pride this type of activities were organized by mainstream NGO’s, that work for many mainstream topics like gender equality, HIV, reproductive and minorities right and LGBT was just a small portion of their work. They are not led by people from the LGBT community nor were specifically about this topic.
“It was hard to convince people of my vision and in me as being capable of delivering this project”.
She wanted to change the way activism was done in Vietnam, driving away from the bureaucracy that institutions have, so the second VietPride 2013 she did independently, which means that it was not affiliated or hosted by a mainstream NGO. This helped her have more control over the budget and more transparency.
“If people are interested in how we administrate our funds we have the financial sheets available and open on the internet.”
As part of her life project against discrimination Tam developed an Employment Equality Campaign, to advocate for employers to put up posters about the diversity of sexual identity and of the terms and common misunderstandings about LGBT people in order to raise awareness about sexuality in the office, create a safe and tolerant workplace environment for LGBT workers, and inform consumer’s buying decisions.
“A very small act would make a lot of difference. I believe small changes like that pay off significantly”
Tam is also working on her thesis that will study family dynamics in Vietnam, highlighting the damaging effect of Confucian culture – filial piety, gender roles, communalism – on the identity development of LGBTQ people in the East and Southeast Asian countries and plans to integrate it into the pride struggle.
“I plan to produce a short documentary that summarizes the results of my thesis. I do not want my thesis to be collecting dust forever, to be only read by a couple of students who happen to have the same topic as mine. I want to reach out to the public, and educate the public on how oppressive culture can be to individuals.”
To keep reading about Tam’s vision please check the Subversive Women Dictionary with terms asked to all the interviewees.
*Currently Tam is an M.A. Candidate in Community Psychology & Social Change at Penn State and a Fulbright Scholar.