This article was published on August 29th, 2022
In a move that is sure to send shockwaves through the LGBTQ+ community, Vietnam’s Ministry of Health has officially declared that homosexuality is “not a disease.”
The declaration comes after lobbying by LGBTQ+ activist groups, who have been calling out the country’s treatment of LGBTQ+ people. In particular, they’ve been pushing for an end to conversion therapy and other practices that they say are harmful to the LGBTQ+ community.
The country’s Ministry of Health issued an official mandate to local and municipal health departments on August 3rd, asserting that “medical professionals should treat LGBTQ+ people with respect and ensure they are not discriminated against.” Notably, the announcement also outlawed the practice of involuntary treatments, such as conversion therapy.
Taking into consideration five guidelines outlined by WHO, Vietnam’s Ministry of Health has declared that education should be strengthened so all medical providers have corrected knowledge about “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” it says. In addition, queer people must be treated equally in medical environments.
In the same way, LGBTQ identity cannot be treated as a disease, while involuntary treatments are prohibited and mental health services can only be provided by experts on sexual orientation and gender identity. Lastly, supervision and inspection of medical facilities should be increased.
The latest government decree comes after years of more vocal advocacy from local human rights groups, including the Institute for Society, Economy and Environment (ISEE), a Hanoi-based non-governmental organization. In 2016, the ISEE petitioned the World Health Organization in Vietnam to recognize that homosexuality isn’t a disease. In April, the WHO’s representative in Vietnam issued a statement supporting the petition.
“We cannot overstate how big a fix this announcement is,” said Kyle Knight, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While attitudes won’t change overnight, this marks a huge paradigm shift.”
The Vietnam government decriminalised same-sex relationships in 2014 and has been working to improve the rights of LGBTQ+ people, but this new declaration will help to provide them with more protection.
Vietnam’s cities are known to have gay bars, as well as pride parades. Vietnamese media are also known to feature queer characters, but they are often depicted as minor characters in mainstream Vietnamese media, or as part of a broader story about a group of people who don’t conform to social norms.
“Leave with Pride”
The campaign to declare queerness not a disease began with iSEE’s “Leave with Pride” campaign, which was launched in November last year. The campaign petitioned WHO Vietnam to officially assert that LGBTQ identity is not a disease.
iSEE worked with collaborators to create a video campaign posing the question: if being queer is a disease shouldn’t LGBTQ+ people be able to apply for sick leave?
The movement has gained momentum since then, with hundreds of activists joining the cause and demanding equal rights for all. This shift in attitude towards queerness is raising hopes among LGBTQ+ activists and their allies across Vietnam: they are hopeful that their fight will finally be successful.
The next hurdle for the activists is rallying the authorities to legalize same-sex marriage which will mean that same-sex couples can apply for marriage licenses and have their relationship recognised by law.
The announcement by Vietnam comes days after Singapore announced plans to end the ban on gay sex. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that he believed this was the right thing to do and something that most Singaporeans would now accept. He also noted that Section 377A of the penal code, a colonial-era law that criminalizes sex between men, would be repealed.