When Vietnam officially declared that homosexuality is not a disease in August, the LGBTQI+ community raised their rainbow flags high. It was a monumental feat of yearslong struggle. But many questioned why it took Vietnam this long to give LGBTQI+ persons the right to be accepted and respected.
But it was a welcome change for the nation, said Jessica Stern, U.S. Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons, during her visit to Vietnam last week. Jessica was on a critical mission to turn government-to-government dialogues into concrete actions in protecting and advancing the rights of the Vietnamese LGBTQI+ community.
Her strong advocacy toward equal rights and justice started ten years ago, when she began her career working for poverty alleviation, women’s rights, gender equality, and voting rights. It was also while fighting the good fight that she figured out she was a lesbian.
“So I would go to work and wonder why people weren’t talking about LGBTQI+ people or why we weren’t talking about the heightened violence and discrimination that lesbian and bisexual women experience,” Jessica shared. “I decided that if I only have one life to live, I’m gonna spend it fighting for my community.”
The U.S. special envoy sat down with Vietcetera to dive deeper into the issues confronting the LGBTQI+ community and the progress Vietnam has made through the years.
What’s the core objective of your work as U.S. Special Envoy for the Advancement of the Human Rights of LGBTQI Persons?
In my role, I visit about three countries a month to monitor the state of LGBTQI+ rights around the world, elevate best practices, and lead U.S. foreign policies related to LGBTQI+ across the Department of State, with 77,000 employees and lead foreign policy agencies of the U.S. government.
I have had many opportunities to work with different organizations, and they have so many ideas and so many answers. That matters because sometimes we think about homophobia and transphobia as a mountain that we can’t move. But actually, we have the tools; we have the solutions. We just need to invest in change.
You’ve been leading initiatives for over ten years to empower the community and shed light on issues affecting LGBTQI+. Have you seen real progress?
I think. The struggle for human rights has led us to a very complicated moment today, and I would say we're in a moment of polarization. We have seen great steps forward for women’s rights, gender equality, racial justice, and LGBTQI+ rights. But we are very far from where we need to be.
The truth is that some of the progress we’ve achieved in these struggles for justice and rights has also generated a backlash. I would argue that the successes still outweigh the backlash. We just have to be persistent in this fight, and ultimately we will succeed.
However, we’ve also been recently seeing the weaponization of LGBTQI+ issues. That is partially the result of the success, progress, and impact of this movement. But when you step back and look at the overall picture, you can see that the needle is moving forward for justice. But we want it to move forward faster.
What does your trip here in Vietnam signify?
I’m here to research how the LGBTQI+ people in Vietnam are faring, what the U.S. government can do to be a better ally, and how we can strengthen our relationship with the government of Vietnam for the global pursuit of safety and security for LGBTQI+ people everywhere.
I had government meetings in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. I also met with journalists and members of the private sector. It’s interesting to see how the private sector in Vietnam cares very much about LGBTQI+ inclusion.
We’re looking at Vietnam as one of the countries in the region that’s actively moving forward on LGBTQI+ issues. There's still a long way to go. LGBTQI+ people still experience exclusion and hardships, but concrete policy initiatives are on the table, including the gender affirmation law and the forthcoming revision of the Family Code. And so I'm here to lend support to those issues.
Vietnam has made a lot of progress economically. How about its openness and acceptance toward LGBTQI+ persons?
I talked with a lot of LGBTQI+ persons here. Talking with them is the best way to get the most accurate information. They’ve told me things are improving, and they’ve been getting more support from their families. There’s also an increase in the representation of LGBTQI+ in TV and movies and in the news. The government is taking steps forward.
For example, removing the ban on equal marriage in 2014 was an important step. Working on the new draft gender affirmation bill is an important step. The new domestic violence law passed this month, which has a gender-neutral definition of domestic violence, is a massive step for Vietnam.
If Vietnam wants to continue its economic progress, it needs to take advantage of the talent and creativity of all Vietnamese, including LGBTQI+ persons. LGBTQI+ inclusion is essential to Vietnam’s economic development.
In August, Vietnam officially declared that being LGBTQI+ is ‘not an illness.’ Is it too late? Or is it a welcome change?
I celebrated when the government of Vietnam released its letter in August. Local organizations have been calling for something like that. I had talked directly with the government about the need to make clear that homosexuality is not a mental health disorder and that transgenderism is normal. And the government consulted civil society, the LGBTQI+ people, and even consulted other governments like the United States.
The government listens; that’s true. The result was that official letter declaring being LGBTQI+ “is entirely not an illness” so it “cannot be cured” nor “needs to be cured” and “cannot be converted in any way.”
The part of the letter that was quite cutting-edge is that it prohibits any services or interventions that would seek to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity in any Vietnamese government healthcare facility, from the provincial level to national hospitals.
Conversion therapy is banned only in six countries around the world. Issuing that letter has positioned Vietnam as the world vanguard.
How is Vietnam’s LGBTQI+ community compare to the rest of the world?
I think LGBTQI+ people in Vietnam and LGBTQI+ organizations in Vietnam are intelligent, creative, and resilient.
I heard that when the organization launched its campaign for marriage equality, their website was hacked. So there was a backlash, and people had to live with that. So I think the question we all need to ask ourselves is how can we support LGBTQI+ people in Vietnam? How can we support LGBTQI+ organizations in Vietnam?
And one of the most important ways we can do that is by acknowledging their importance to the rest of us. LGBTQI+ organizations are great partners for governments that want to understand policy solutions.
We’ll know how well-integrated LGBTQI+ people are in a country when there are LGBTQI+ members in the government. Right now, there’s none in the National Assembly. We can see this as an area for potential improvement.
I would definitely encourage the government of Vietnam to see LGBTQI+ organizations as a resource of talent and improve more inclusive policies.
Are there programs and initiatives that you have planned for Vietnam moving forward?
We’ve had constructive discussions with the government of Vietnam and the private sector. We’re planning an International Visitor Leadership Program, where we will invite representatives of the government of Vietnam to the United States specifically to study progress on LGBTQI+ issues.
And with Vietnam just securing a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, we hope to collaborate at the multilateral level because we need more recognition from the UN system on the rights of LGBTQI+ people. So I’m looking forward to partnering with the government of Vietnam at the United Nations.
The governments of Vietnam and the United States have a strong and ongoing dialogue and partnership, and we’re happy to continue the work we’ve started.