The Inspiring yet Uncertain Future of the Vietnamese LGBTIQ Rights Movement


Explore the Vietnam's LGBTIQ rights journey, from historic Article 37's 2015 victory allowing gender change, to challenges and successes. The movement reshaped laws, lifting bans and redefining rape definitions. Amid funding battles and online advocacy, Vietnam leads in Asian LGBTIQ rights, altering perceptions via media. Despite uncertainties, progress continues as the movement forges on, echoing gratitude's lasting impact. A beacon for equality, it inspires a new era of activism, shaping a fairer society.

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Huy together with Vietnamese LGBTIQ activists celebrating the LGBTIQ Rights journey

On 23 November 2015, a phone call from a journalist working in close collaboration with iSEE at the National Assembly of Vietnam delivered the long-awaited news: "Article 37 has been passed." This was a significant moment after years of advocacy, which allowed transgender individuals to legally change their gender on official documents. The revising process of the Civil Code, which had been underway since 2013, marked the first time that the personal rights of transgender individuals had been discussed.

In the memories of many, the transgender community was associated with images of transgender women working at lottery fairs, a popular form of entertainment in rural areas. They were known for their bold makeup, ever-present smiles, trying to sell as many lottery tickets as possible in a single night. Some of them would save every penny they could to travel to Thailand for gender reaffirmation surgery. But now, everything has changed. Transgender men and women in Vietnam can receive the medical care they need right in their own country. To the surprise of many, Vietnam has even enacted laws on transgender rights before Thailand, where the topic is still a subject of debate, or not.

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2014 Viet Pride in Hanoi.

Vietnam's LGBTIQ community has made significant progress in the last decade, with a series of triumphs since 2013. In 2014, the country's National Assembly removed administrative fines for same-sex weddings and lifted the ban on same-sex marriage in the Law on Marriage and Family, although falling short of granting them the same rights as married couples or any kind of legal recognition. In the same year, the Penal Code was revised to make the definition of rape more inclusive, covering both transgender people and same-sex activities involved in the crime. LGBTIQ individuals in detention facilities and prisons were also allowed to be arranged by their gender identity or for safety reasons. In 2016, Vietnam voted in favor of a first ever resolution on protection of LGBTIQ community put forward by the United Nations Human Rights Council, making it one of the only three supporters from Asia.

The news of these developments quickly spread internationally, making Vietnam a prominent country in Southeast Asia, and even in the whole of Asia, in terms of LGBTIQ rights. The LGBTIQ community was excited and hopeful that their daily lives and relationships with families and workplaces would improve. The community gained more visibility than ever before, with many TV shows and movies depicting LGBTIQ people and their stories. Drag shows became popular and widely accepted, and many same-sex weddings were held. Platform like YouTube or TikTok also had a plethora of video clips of LGBTIQ people sharing about all aspects of their lives.

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2014 Viet Pride in Hanoi.

Last year, in 2022, after a campaign which collected more than 84,000 signatures petitioning WHO in Vietnam about their opinion on “conversion therapy”, the Ministry of Health also issued an Official Dispatch to instruct all healthcare facilities in Vietnam not to provide any kind of medical intervention to change people’s sexual orientation and gender identity and reiterated that being LGBTIQ is not a decease or mental illness.

Despite these achievements, the road to equality has not been easy. Vietnam's LGBTIQ rights movement faces significant challenges. With a relatively young movement starting from online forums and the first registered NGO in 2007, funding remains heavily reliant on foreign donors. As a result, conservative nationalists accuse the movement of having a political agenda imposed on the Vietnamese government by Western countries. Discrimination and bias continue to permeate society, with disinformation campaigns targeting the LGBTIQ community proliferating on social media. Haters often invoke traditional values, cultural norms, and unwarranted concerns about children raised by same-sex couples, as well as unfounded fears of transgender women using public facilities or participating in sports.

Vietnamese LGBTIQ Activists celebrating the change of the civil code.

While the government has expressed its commitment to legal reforms and combating discrimination, progress has been hindered by competing priorities such as COVID-19 responses and economic growth. In a workshop on May 2022 in Hanoi, the Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, Le Thi Thu Hang, confirmed that Vietnam is studying the development of a Bill on Gender Identity and a revision of the Law on Domestic Violence Prevention and Law on Gender Equality. However, after eight years since the passage of the Civil Code and Article 37, transgender rights remain pending due to lawmakers' reluctance to discuss about “minority issues”. Some officials in the law drafting committee still think the language of "sexual orientation and gender identity" is not necessary as the laws already have protected grounds like sex and gender.

Some non-profits are closing due to difficulties in new legal regulations and financial sustainability, and the community is losing motivation to speak out. With little progress in reality, many individuals have shifted their focus to securing their livelihoods during the economic crisis. NGOs are losing their advantages in using social media as they have to compete with a multitude of voices, including those from the government and corporations, for the public's attention. Despite significant progress compared to a decade ago, the road to equality remains long and uncertain in Vietnam's LGBTIQ rights movement.

Vietnamese LGBTIQ activists in front of the National Assembly celebrating the change of the civil code.

As I think back, my mind drifts to the day the Civil Code was passed by the National Assembly. I joined a group of transgender individuals and their supporters, stood on the pavement and held up signs that read "Thank You", "Time for Change", "We are History", and more. We were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the buses that were carrying members of the National Assembly. It was a powerful moment. Years later, I had the opportunity to meet a former delegate who had been present on one bus that day. To my surprise, they still remembered it vividly. It was the first time that they had ever received gratitude from a marginalized community for passing a law. It was a significant moment that illustrated the impact of our activism and advocacy efforts.

As Vietnam's LGBTIQ rights movement faces an uncertain future, it is important to remember the stories of those who have fought for progress and the potential loss of their legacy. Through their perseverance and dedication, these individuals have made significant strides towards a more just and equal society for all. The movement must continue to fight for legal reforms and combat discrimination, and it must also strive to maintain its momentum and inspire new generations of activists.


Luong The Huy is a Vietnamese lawyer, LGBTIQ Rights Activist and the Director of Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), a Vietnamese NGO working for human rights and civil society movements. He is the first openly LGBTIQ official candidate running for the Vietnam's National Assembly.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

This article is a part of web-dossier "Vietnam in Motion", a collaboration between Phuong Phan and Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Southeast Asia Regional Office.