On a sweltering Saturday afternoon in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, 13 bands from around Southeast Asia took to the stage in downtown Hanoi for the second annual ASEAN Music Festival, held May 24. From its inaugural year, the crowd had more than doubled in size to over 4,000 attendees.
The annual music festival was created last year in an unlikely partnership between the U.S. Embassy and Vietnam’s foremost live music promoters, and it doubles as one of the country’s most innovative platforms for social dialogue. With a new theme each year, ASEAN invites international talent and community leaders to share the spotlight in raising awareness on a key social issue in the southeast Asian bloc.
This year ASEAN festival organizers responded to one of the nation’s newest and most prolific human rights movements with its focus on LGBT equality.
Dubbed ASEAN Pride 2014, the festival was one of the nation’s largest live music events of the year and the largest government-sanctioned LGBT event to date. It also marked an important moment for Vietnam: an unprecedented mainstream recognition of Vietnamese LGBT advocacy.
"There’s a tremendous energy here and an incredibly vibrant LGBT community working on policy, advocacy and social activism," says Michael Turner, cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy and a key organizer for ASEAN Pride. "What better way to work and coordinate with these groups in Vietnam than to [host] an event where they could come together on issues important to so many people around the world?"
The festival represented a surprising turn of events for the famously repressive country, as it came only two years after Vietnam’s very first Pride event, Viet Pride. The August 2012 rainbow-hued bicycle parade through the streets of the country’s capital was the first major public display of a growing movement in Vietnam. Like ASEAN Pride, it signaled a turning point for the nation’s social climate.
The year following Viet Pride’s debut, the Communist Party of Vietnam would emerge as a surprising advocate in Southeast Asia’s push for equality. Amid rising LGBT visibility, the party lifted a long-standing ban on gay wedding ceremonies but stopped short of legally recognizing same-sex partnerships.
Although the 2013 decision put Vietnam in the international spotlight and represented an improvement in the country’s notoriously abysmal human rights record, the battle for LGBT visibility had already begun a decade earlier.
Leading the charge was not the country's ruling Communist Party but rather a new generation of nongovernmental organizations and local grassroots groups. Their fight, that began in the early 2000s, prioritized changing public opinion over gaining political recognition.
"Before 2007, any time a [Vietnamese newspaper] ran a story about LGBT [people], I can assure you that at least half of those stories were very, very negative,” says Huy, the LGBT technical officer for the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy, and Environment (iSEE), one of the most prominent advocates for LGBT media representation in Vietnam.
"They often described homosexuality as a social evil and connected it with crime, and something that went against traditional Vietnamese culture," Huy says. "Now, when you find stories in papers and in online magazines, those stories are about LGBT rights and are generally really supportive."
The shift in LGBT media representation within Vietnam came about in part because of the institute’s sensitivity training campaigns for journalists. While homosexuality was regularly cited as a "social evil" and associated with taboo issues like drug use and prostitution before 2005, recent media coverage, even in state-run newspapers, has been increasingly positive.
And although 2014 research by iSEE still shows a majority of Vietnamese are against homosexuality and same-sex unions, the efforts did spark a transformation in public opinion for a very important cohort of Vietnamese people: youth.
From a 2005 survey that showed a majority of Vietnamese between the ages of 14 and 25 as opposing homosexuality, the 2014 survey by iSEE indicated that a majority of Vietnamese youth are now firmly in support of LGBT equality.
The recent changes are a testament not only to iSEE’s efforts in combating negative representations in LGBT culture in Vietnamese media but also to Vietnam’s development. With a rapidly growing economy, Vietnam has become increasingly connected with international media.
Unlike their parents’ generation, young people in the country now have more ability to interact and engage with global movements, and take to heart the implications they have for Vietnam’s future.
"[This generation] and the last grew up in completely different social and historical contexts," says Tam Nguyen, an enterprising local LGBT activist and the organizer of the first Viet Pride parade.
"The message of creating and initiating social change is something that resonates more strongly with young Vietnamese," she continues. "Many feel very connected to the idea of participating in something larger than themselves."
At only 27, Tam personifies the youthful energy of Vietnam’s LGBT movement. She, like many Vietnamese around her age, feels a greater responsibility to contribute to Vietnam’s social development than did previous generations.
These sentiments have inspired young Vietnamese to become the driving force behind the country’s LGBT movement. They make up a majority of participants in community organizations and are the most actively involved in increasing awareness for LGBT issues. Participants in on-the-ground activism like Viet Pride are predominantly college-age, and campaigns against bullying and discrimination have cropped up on many college campuses in Vietnam.
Unsurprisingly, this youthful energy is what captured the attention of the organizers at ASEAN Festival in the first place, and what set the stage for its realization.
These young people "are a reflection of a young Vietnam that is actively engaged in creating a brighter future for the country, and for ASEAN Pride, we wanted to harness that energy," says Turner, the ASEAN Pride organizer with the the U.S. Embassy.
ASEAN Pride was just another step toward this brighter future of Vietnam. And with the third annual Viet Pride set to kick off in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in August of this year, no doubt led by a dynamic group of young activists‚ the movement shows no signs of slowing down.
See more photos from ASEAN Pride 2014 on the following page.
Karen Hewell is a freelance journalist based in Hanoi, where she documents changing social trends and emerging cultures in the quickly developing country. Originally from Phoenix, she graduated from Arizona State University and currently writes for several Vietnamese and international publications. Follow her on Twitter at @kaziverden