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Hanoi leads the way

As well as being a haven for discerning diners, Phnom Penh’s Secret Room is also the spot where topics of the day are often thrashed out passionately by the city’s most interesting people.

A recent trip to that irresistible hideaway provided confirmation of this when the discussion of a mixed group veered onto that ever stimulating topic – sexual proclivities.

Since several participants were of Antipodean heritage, it was no surprise that they became most vocal about New Zealand’s decision last month to legalise same-sex marriage.

In hindsight, aside from the intensity of the opposing views, what was most striking was that no one noted a significant development on this front, namely the plan to allow gay marriage in Vietnam.

Yes, you heard right. This initiative was not taken in a politically correct, liberal democracy like New Zealand or Sweden or Canada, but in Vietnam, which has one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes.

However, while harshly repressive on the political front, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party does permit a degree of social latitude that shames much of the rest of the region.

Of course, the primary motive for this is self-survival: Let the masses drink and cavort when they are so inclined and can afford it, because that will keep their minds off the inept performance of their government.

But let’s ignore the motive for now, the fact is that the assertion by deputy health minister Nguyen Viet Tien, that Vietnam aims to legalise same-sex marriage as soon as possible, was worthy of unqualified applause.

And it is not often that something like that can be said about Vietnam.

However, in this case it can, especially given that Tien’s bold declamatory statement was endorsed by his minister, which meant that it must also be supported by the Politburo, the ruling party’s supreme body.

“As human beings, homosexuals have the same rights as everyone else to live, eat, love and be loved,” Tien told a government conclave discussing the country’s Marriage and Family Law last month.

Wow. If only he had been among the passionate little group in the Secret Room, glasses would have been raised to him, along with shouts of “Hat’s off!”

In a way, his initiative should not come as too much of a surprise, since homosexual relations are technically not illegal at present in Vietnam and discreet gay bars do exist.

Indeed, in August last year, the nation’s first Gay Pride March took place without any untoward incidents and an online gay soap opera has a large following.

That said, however, homophobia by Vietnam’s growing middle class and more especially its rural masses remains strong and that is why the party has so far maintained its ban on gay marriage.

But as Tien’s forthright statement indicated, change is clearly afoot – and indeed is already under way.

This month, the National Assembly in Hanoi is scheduled to consider the legalisation of gay unions.

It is an astonishing step and contrasts markedly with growing anti-gay sentiment across the rest of the region.

In Malaysia, for example, the fourth annual Sexual Diversity Festival was vetoed because the authorities claimed – without any clear evidence – that it was a “threat to public order”.

Human Rights Watch, the international non-government organisation, said the festival ban showed that a virulent homophobic mindset still pervades the Malaysian bureaucracy.

And so it does. Malaysia’s rabidly anti-gay laws encourage discrimination and are used to prosecute sexual acts between consenting adults, particularly those who have upset the political leadership.

Similar antediluvian actions and paranoid statements have been made by leading figures in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

In neighbouring Vietnam, however, the reverse is taking place and the government has already scrapped fines for same-sex couples who hold informal weddings.

If, as seems likely, Hanoi proceeds to legalise same-sex marriage, it will become the first Asian country to do so and will gain great international kudos for doing so.

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