It is easy to forget how lucky I am to have been born into a generation which stands on the shoulders of those who courageously fought for the rights and freedoms I have in 2012.
Coming to terms with your sexuality and facing the reactions of those you come out to can be very difficult indeed.
The effort to advance LGBT issues (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) in Vietnam is still in its infancy, with a long way yet to go.
The recent gay pride march in Hanoi has given me the kick I needed to share the struggle of a Vietnamese friend of mine, Duy, who wishes to remain anonymous, but who has bravely allowed me to tell his particularly difficult story of being a young gay man in Vietnam.
Family is king in Vietnam; as the Vietnamese say, “Gia đình là trên hết.”
This country is moving quickly:
It’s opening up and a young generation is emerging, growing more confident than ever in who they are and how they want to lead their lives.
A friend of mine, Duy, recently came out to me about a year ago.
He is 22 years old.
He sheepishly approached the subject and sought hope in the fact that I could relate to his situation.
Not feeling particularly qualified to give advice but relying only on my own experience of coming out, I tried to instill in him a sense of confidence in who he was and how that identity would affect his life.
Just telling someone the first time is a profound rite of passage in itself.
For many gay people here in Vietnam, it seems impossible to tell their families.
They want – or rather expect – their sons and daughters to live at home, get married and have children.
In stricter households, this is an un-bendable expectation.
In the case of Duy, these expectations weren’t any different.
He’d dated, but was happy when he eventually found himself a boyfriend.
Duy occasionally spoke to me to ask questions or just talk about his problems; standard friend behavior, albeit sporadic.
Their relationship eventually ended, and some time passed in which he went on dates again and got on with things.
A few months ago, I received a text from him saying that he had noticed a strange mark on his skin.
He got tested and his doctor confirmed that he was HIV positive.
Sadly, through a lack of exposure to the facts, many who read this may solely associate homosexuality with a positive HIV status.
This association is false.
To put it into perspective, according to UNAIDS, at the end of 2009 an estimated 16.7% of men having sex with men were living with the disease in Vietnam (Viet Nam Aids Response Progress Report 2012).
UNAIDS further reported that between 220,000 and 350,000 (www.unaids.org) people were estimated to be HIV-positive across the country, and as of 2011, cases of HIV have been reported in every one of Vietnam’s 63 provinces, in 98% of its districts and 77% of its communes.
A lot of figures, a lot of facts, but by no means does 16.7% make HIV an exclusively gay problem.
At the age of 22 years old, Duy is young, HIV-positive and terrified.
Despite the figures, he still feels relatively alone.
“Am I going to die?”
“How long will I live?”
“I saw on the Internet that a man was cured of HIV.
Is that true?”
The questions came thick and fast, and I tried my best to answer or suggest sources of information.
Luckily, Duy had started a relationship just before his positive result and his new boyfriend was amazingly supportive.
Even though they had only been together for a few weeks, he stuck by him through all the hospital appointments and provided much-needed support, despite being young himself and having just as little in the way of information as Duy.
Being gay in Vietnam is still very controversial so, understandably, Duy hasn’t told his family.
Thankfully, he has at least a couple of people he can confide in without judgment.
That was until his boyfriend’s aunt found out that he was gay.
Scared by the reaction of the rest of the family should he continue his relationship with Duy, my friend’s boyfriend didn’t know what to do.
His fears were strong enough to cause him to want to take his own life.
A shocked Duy eventually talked him down, but the crushing disappointment he felt he would cause his boyfriend’s family led Duy to end their relationship, knowing that his boyfriend’s situation would only get worse.
With his boyfriend went a vital part of Duy’s support network, as small as it was, as well as his desire to keep taking his medication.
After further communication, he has since returned to his doctor and is continuing with his treatment.
There is help out there, LGBT advice and support networks like www.isee.org.vn do exist, but you have to actively go out and look for them.
I have no idea how Duy manages to deal with all of this and maintain a job at such a young age, but he does so without the support of friends or a family unit others would depend on.
The cold hard truth of the matter is that, unless Duy starts opening up and telling more people, he won’t get the help he needs or the support he deserves.
Being gay for Duy isn’t always going to be easy, but it doesn’t have to be awful either, and that’s largely up to him.
For Duy there is a difficult choice ahead; he either faces his family, telling them who he is and the help he needs, possibly risking their disapproval, or he can go the way of many other gay men and women before him by keeping his silence and living a double life, essentially pleasing his family but hurting himself in the process and managing his illness, alone.
I don’t think I am the unique in thinking that Duy deserves a lot better than the latter.
By JAMES ALLEN (*)
(*) The author tells the true story of one of his friends, a Vietnamese, who is gay and HIV-positive; the name of the friend has been changed to protect the subject’s identity.