Early in my tenure as US ambassador to Vietnam, I spoke about US-Vietnam relations at a high school for gifted students in the former imperial capital of Huế, a school that counted among its graduates Hồ Chí Minh and General Võ Nguyên Giáp. During the question-and-answer session, a young woman asked what advice I could give to an aspiring actress whose dreams for her future differed from those of her parents. Remembering that students at the school faced many expectations from family members and teachers, I still told her what I thought was right: she must plot her own path.
A teenager stood up, looked squarely at me, and asked if I had encountered any difficulties in my life or career because I am gay. If he had the courage to ask this question in front of eight hundred of his peers, exposing himself to questions, he deserved a truthful answer.
“Yes,” I told him, “I have encountered difficulties. When I first joined the Foreign Service, we could lose our jobs for being out. Because there is strength in numbers, we created a group, and we persuaded the State Department to stop discrimination based on sexual orientation. As American society grew more accepting, we insisted that our families be treated with the same respect as traditional families.
“In the group we created, I met the man I later married. While serving together in India, we went to a high-level reception. There, an elegant sari-clad woman asked Clayton about his wife. He pointed toward me, saying I was his spouse. Her eyes widened, and then she replied, ‘You live your life.’
“In another conservative society, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation, the Indonesian president hosted a state dinner for President and Mrs. Obama. Directed toward a table at the front, Clayton and I looked for cards that would tell us where to sit. One read, ‘Ted Osius, Deputy Chief of Mission.’ Next to it: ‘Clayton Bond, spouse of the Deputy Chief of Mission.’
“Since we arrived in Vietnam, our family has received the warmest possible welcome. If I can draw a lesson from these experiences, it is that it is better to be who you are. I don’t think happiness is possible any other way. Be who you are.”
There was a moment of quiet. The young man who had asked the question smiled broadly. Then the applause began, and it lasted a while.
Interested in this story? Ted Osius’s book, “Nothing Is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam,” with a Foreword by John Kerry, will be published in October 2021 in English by Rutgers University Press. If you want to receive further information about the book - including special bonuses - please visit www.tedosius.com and sign up with your email address.