Over the last few decades, numerous platforms have been established for LGBTQI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and intersex) members to voice their concerns and pains, and tell their stories to a sympathetic audience.
In many of these stories, a common thread is the blame and ostracism LGBTQI people suffer at society’s hands, often beginning with their parents and other relatives.
But this is not true of many parents, who share the same feelings of fear and anxiety when confronted with the truth of their children’s different sexual orientations.
The story of these parents are almost never told or heard.
A public talk show last month tried to change this. It gave the opportunity for real life stories of Vietnamese parents who have LGBTQI+ children as well as those who are LGBTQI+ themselves.
It was not a crowded gathering, but the stories it elicited were overwhelmingly touching.
One of the main organizers was PFLAG, the first community of its kind in Vietnam. PFLAG stands for “Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays”. These parents have not only embraced their own children, but are also reaching out to LGBT strangers and unknown moms and dads.
“Can we have the permission of the participating parents for us to call you Mother and Father today?” asked the event’s host, setting the stage for a very close bonding.
The parents responded by referring to all young people present as “child.”
Mother Chau, a prominent figure in PFLAG community was the first to share her story, though the MC had to feed the audience a synopsis first. Telling it all on her own would have been emotionally overwhelming for her.
PFLAG member Chau shares an LGBT case she helped with. Sititng next to her is another PFLAG member, Thang (left). Thang and Chau are both familiar parent faces in the LGBT community. Photo by Sen
Family honor and marriages of convenience
Chau got to know a lesbian at a restaurant where she used to work. Because of her sexual orientation, she no longer lived with her family. The problem wasn’t her parents – it was her grandmother who would reprimand her harshly. The grandmother’s last words, just before she died, set the tone for the rest of this woman’s life: “She has to get a husband.”
To appease her relatives and maintain her “family honor,” the young woman returned home for a wedding with a paid groom, who was told of the situation. He was fully compensated for his participation in the face-saving marriage, but it did not stop him from getting drunk and raping his lesbian wife one day.
The rape not only traumatized the woman mentally to the extent of requiring prolonged medication, it also made her pregnant. She give birth to a “slow child” as a result of all the medicines she’d taken to deal with her mental trauma.
Chau was almost in tears as she narrated the story.
“This is a wake-up call for parents out there,” she said. A healthy woman gave up her way of life and true self to fulfill a death wish, with tragic results.
“Is this the price one must pay for family honor?” Chau asked all listeners.
“Because the pregnancy was helping the woman recover her mental health, abortion was not recommended. Now she is doing much better and is no longer heavily dependent on medication. Her child now goes to school,” Chau added.
The accidental father claimed that the contractual nature of their “marriage” meant he had no responsibility towards his victim and child. The family did not press charges.
It might have been love that motivated the family to coerce the woman into the accepted mold of gender norms, but that love was a recipe for disaster, Chau said.
“Now we see love resurrected with healing power in this story, as the rape victim and her child are now living in the caring, affectionate arms of a woman.”
No sex life
As a member of PFLAG, Chau, who has a gay son, always keeps her eyes and ears wide open to spot LGBT in the vicinity who might need help. Mother Yen Ly, president of PFLAG Vietnam, does the same.
Ly shared the story of a man in his late 30s, a resident of the central Thanh Hoa Province, where traditional prejudices against gay people still hold strong. He and his wife have a teenage daughter, though there is no sex life.
“Every night I would try to find work somewhere to do and only come back home when my wife is asleep. It was a glimpse of hell every time I crossed our bed,” he told Ly.
He finally decided to put everything on the table, literally, with a letter of confession to his wife. This is not something any heterosexual married woman expects to experience. She was heartbroken, and his parents were furious. Coming out of the closet created an immense distance between him and his family.
Following Ly’s advice, the man invited his parents to different workshops organized by PFLAG for parents of LGBT children. Gradually they came out of their hate and prejudice to welcome their son for who he was.
The man is now happily divorced and his daughter visits him frequently.
Huynh Minh Thao, aka Sas Ri, director of communications and services of ICS – the first LGBT rights organization in Vietnam, said “loveless marriages benefit neither our society nor the relationship.”
He reckoned that the root cause for this happening was Vietnamese parents’ fear that their LGBT children were destined to live a tough life without a life partner that could bear them children.
“Getting married, bearing offspring and being taken care of by them is the most favored normal way of living. The idea of LGBT individuals having a healthy, happy life outside of this model is unheard of, for a lot of parents,” Thao said.
Still a man’s world
A panel guest – a media expert who requested anonymity, said gender disparity was another problem that rears its ugly head in LGBT issues, and that the victim was not always the person with a different sexual orientation.
He shared the story of a highly respected teacher in a small city, who is also a government official in the local educational department.
Everything about his life goes according to the book. A Vietnamese middle-aged man, secure career, dedicated wife and kids.
There was just one caveat: he likes men.
Unlike the previous story, this man has not bothered to keep it a secret from his immediate family. He has built a private room in his house where only he and his lovers are allowed. “The room is fully equipped and super romantic,” said the expert.
However, this does not mean his wife and children are free from living a lie because they cannot utter a word to anyone because of his exalted position in his field. For the same reason, divorce is out of the question.
The wife, therefore, is set for the life of any traditional Vietnamese woman – devoted to their husband, whose happiness comes before theirs.
In this case, it was the straight spouse, the wife and a mother, who has been victimized and needed help, the guest noted.
Those who were at the event agreed that more time and effort was needed to raise understanding and empathy so that the sad stories narrated would, in the future, become an anomaly in the country.
That is the mission that ICS and PFLAG Vietnam have set for themselves. While ICS works towards LGBTI+ community empowerment, social change, and law advocacy, as well as providing consultation and legal aid, PFLAG devotes its resources to similar initiatives and organizes safe platforms for LGBT discussions.
‘Help your parents’
One of the most asked questions in the LGBT community is: “how do I come out safely?”
And it was raised again at the event.
Chau said that it was difficult for parents to keep up with their children, who shift from one milestone of growth to another.
“You should help your parents confront the naysayers and enrich their LGBT knowledge, instead of their trying to protect family honor for the sake of outsiders while attacking their own children,” Chau told a teenager.
The event’s host said he felt parents of LGBTQI+ chide their children not because they do not love them, but because they are deeply offended by outsiders’ mocking of their loved ones for their unorthodox sexual orientations. They want to change that, “but sometimes they direct their anger at the wrong person – their own children.
“Even you need time to accept and welcome yourself, how can parents instantly accept you?” an event organizer asked.
“When you are becoming more cognizant of the fact that you are different, think about your parents. Have you ever considered your parents’ perspective? That they are scared too because they are different for having a gay child?”
Teddy, a guest advises others on coming out successfully. Sitting next to him is his mother, Dinh Thi Yen Ly, president of PFLAG. It took Ly five years to accept her son’s sexual identity and mend their relationship. Sitting across them are another mother-LGBT son pair who’ve also been through their own journey towards understanding one another. Photo by Sen
Teddy, a university lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh University of Technology recommended that everyone comes out “strategically.”
He said: “You need to calculate all the risks. If you want your parents to understand you, make sure you are also willing to understand them.
Huynh Minh Thao felt that there was no blanket solution that fits every family, but the following steps might benefit some.
“First of all, know thyself. LGBT need to know who they are, what they need, and essentially equip themselves with relevant LGBT knowledge. The second step involves finding an ally in the family, who has an open and receptive mind. Last but not least, team up with that person to find other family members who can sympathize with your situation,” the ICS director said.
Thao advised: “Every family is different, but having an ally means you will be protected to an extent, especially when that person has a big influence in the family.”