Visibility and the Exploding Growth of Vietnam’s Queer Spaces

practicalities - Vietnam: Jan. 13, 2020

Vietnam’s lô tô troupes are one of the first safe spaces for the trans community.

A growing number of venues and grassroots organizations are creating new safe spaces for Vietnam’s LGBTQI+ community.

Vietnam’s LGBTQI+ community, like others around the world, has gradually stepped into the light and become increasingly visible and accepted, largely thanks to increased media representation that has spread awareness and helped normalise gender fluidity and non-heterosexual relationships. While there is much work to be done, safe spaces for queer individuals to gather and seek support have been growing and flourishing in the country’s major urban centers, and even in the countryside thanks to the decades-long existence of Vietnam’s well-known lô tô troupes.

Lô Tô: A Safe Haven for Vietnam’s Trans Community

Many LGBTQI+ individuals hide their sexuality or true gender identity from their families, but for many in the transgender community (particularly for those who choose to transition), this luxury may not always be afforded to them. While transgender people are increasingly visible in positive media representation and pop culture, the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Associations, in collaboration with Hanoi University of Public Health, has found transgender discrimination to be rampant, with over 60% of transgender people in Vietnam having attempted suicide at some point in their lifetimes. 

“Part of the problem is the limited way of thinking in the heterosexual community,” says Phong, a Hanoi-based performer. “Claiming that everyone has to live according to the gender assigned at birth.”

While transgender women experience the misogyny, abuse, and erasure that is devastatingly common throughout the world, transgender men (and more broadly, anyone assigned female at birth or AFAB) currently have very little access to sexual health resources. Fortunately there are growing grassroots movements, like FTM Vietnam, who are working to organize events like Trans Dot and spread awareness of issues specific to this underserved queer community. In addition, a recent initiative by ICS to provide quality sexual health education to students across Vietnam has concentrated a majority of its resources on the AFAB community.

Vietnam's LGBTQI+ CommunityImage source: facebook.com/transdotvn

Beyond basic sexual health, professional medical help is another scarcity in the limited pool of resources for the local trans community. Few doctors in Vietnam are qualified or knowledgeable about gender confirmation surgeries or hormone therapy, leading many trans people to buy their hormones on the black market and inject them without knowing the appropriate dosage for their body type. Those who are fortunate enough to have support networks and sufficient resources travel to Thailand for their medical procedures—but if any complications arise after returning home, transgender people may find it next to impossible to find treatment even in major cities like Hanoi and Saigon.

Transgender people in southern Vietnam have historically banded together and formed their own communities as a survival mechanism. In the early 1980s, coupled with the rising popularity of Bingo which had been imported by the French during the colonial era, the nomadic lô tô“ troupes first appeared, comprised of mostly transgender drag queens who travelled from town to town, throwing carnivals and Bingo games for local communities until their licenses to operate expired, or they could no longer attract enough customers, or they were forced out by the local community. 

Though once merely regarded as a sort of “freak show,” this tradition has become a weekly staple at Rubik Zoo in Saigon performed by a local troupe of performers called Sài Gòn Tân Thời. Lô tô itself has transformed from a local novelty into a part of the country’s unique cultural heritage and, gradually, a positive representation for transgender people. Sài Gòn Tân Thời have recently been featured at a performance arts festival in Taipei, Taiwan, and have even had a go at investors on an episode of the Vietnamese version of Shark Tank

Vietnam's LGBTQI+ CommunityImage source: phunuvietnam.mediacdn.vn

For many transgender people in Vietnam, working as entertainers or in lô tô troupes is the only means to survival, as their legal gender doesn’t match their true identity or appearance, leading to difficulty applying for other kinds of jobs or integrating with society in ways cisgender people take for granted. Though change is inevitably on the horizon, it is only recently that transgender people have begun to be heard and seen beyond their capacity to entertain.

Safe Spaces for Queer Folks

ICS is a nonprofit organization that works throughout Vietnam to advocate for LGBTQI+ rights, educate local communities, and help organize local Pride events. Originally comprised of volunteers who met on internet forums, they eventually become organized and officially registered as a company in 2011. In 2012, they organized Vietnam’s first ever Pride celebration in Hanoi, and have since expanded to cities and towns all throughout the country.

Vietnam's LGBTQI+ CommunityImage source: facebook.com/hanoipride.vn

The Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE) is another local advocacy group that also works more broadly for gender justice and protection of ethnic minority groups and has been advocating for social justice since before ICS was founded. The Center for Studies and Applied Sciences in Gender, Family, Women and Adolescents (CSAGA) has been around since 2001 and works more broadly for women’s and girls’ rights throughout Vietnam. In addition to these more established organizations, an increasing number of smaller grassroots organizations have grown to address the needs of smaller and underserved queer communities or needs and concerns specific to certain demographic regions, like NYNA and NYNO, Unigen, Hanoi Queer, Saigon Queer, and Bau Troi Xanh

Vietnam's LGBTQI+ CommunityImage source: facebook.com/hanoipride.vn

Thanks to these grassroots organizations working in their local communities, the word is spreading and public perception is gradually shifting.

“[Public perception] has improved quite a lot; those within the younger generation don’t discriminate at all and those from the older generation are softening up,” says Long, a transgender dancer and drag performer based in Saigon. “Parents of those within the community are starting to accept how their kids identify themselves and understanding that it’s natural and normal.”

In addition to advocacy groups, a growing number of queer-specific parties and events have skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years, giving the increasingly visible LGBTQI+ community opportunities to express themselves, make new friends and connections, and simply have fun. 

Vietnam's LGBTQI+ CommunityImage source: facebook.com/hanoipride.vn

GenderFunk is a collective of queer artists and performers who have been organizing some of Saigon’s biggest queer events since summer of 2018. Their Saigon is Burning series, which has expanded to include Hanoi is Burning (as well as a GenderFunk-inspired “Is Burning” event in Grenoble, France), is a drag competition inspired in part by the original New York City ballroom scene which is the subject of the groundbreaking 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. 

GenderFunk aims to promote queer art, create safe queer spaces and, in the words of founder Ricardo Glencasa, “to explore and express your gender, however the f*** you want!” GenderFunk has also organised several gender and sexuality workshops for universities in Saigon and worked with ICS through charity fundraising events to finance close to 100 million VND for initiatives for leadership training and inclusive sexual education in schools throughout Vietnam.

Vietnam's LGBTQI+ CommunityImage source: facebook.com/GenderFunk

Before there was GenderFunk, there was Full Disclosure, which pioneered the first inclusive drag night for both locals and expats in Saigon. Full Disclosure, founded by Gavin Sealy (also known as drag queen Joy Oi), started in 2017 and still organises events featuring local and international talent in a laid back environment where attendees can simply be themselves and have fun. 

Full Disclosure has also worked closely with the Tipsy Unicorn, one of the newest additions to Saigon’s gay bars, to put on weekly events and create safe spaces for the LGBTQI+ community in Saigon, ranging from trivia nights to weekly Rupaul’s Drag Race viewing parties. In addition to bringing the local community together for more informal gatherings, these events consistently provide a platform for the city’s newest drag performers to experiment and gain valuable experience.

In addition to these newer queer spaces, many existing performance troupes and drag shows have existed for the local community over the past decade or so, including the legendary JS Band, a group of fashionable transgender drag queens who perform regularly at venues around town (as well as GenderFunk & Full Disclosure) founded by activitist and mentor Jessica Ca in 2012. Bang Trinh team is another blend of trans and cis drag queens who frequently perform at local clubs and venues and spread awareness of LGBTQI+ issues in Vietnam—not only entertaining their audiences, but educating them as well.

Vietnam's LGBTQI+ CommunityImage source: kenh14.vn

Ongoing club nights in Saigon like Republic and more upscale events at Skyxx are long-established venues for local and international drag performers, though they cater to high end crowds looking for a nightclub atmosphere. And perhaps one of the most popular unofficial-but-everyone-knows-it queer spaces is at Thi Bar on De Tham street in Bui Vien, which is consistently packed on the weekends and a favourite gathering place for local Vietnamese gay men.

Further to the north, Hanoi’s queer scene is expanding and manifesting itself in new ways that many in the local community never thought they would see.

“We have drag in Hanoi, which is crazy,” says Phong. “And it’s been nothing but support from everyone. Hanoi Pride caused lots of attention, good and bad but hey...that’s progress!”

Local queer collectives Peach and Wet organise numerous drag performance events and queer parties at venues all over Hanoi. One of Peach’s highlight events, “Singalong Social,” features a unique format where drag queens lead the audience in singing along to some of their favourite tunes. They also put on regular performance events and have recently hosted their own drag competition show for Hanoi Pride called Queen of Hanoi. 

Peach has worked closely with GenderFunk in Saigon to co-organize events in both Saigon and Hanoi in the past year, and an exciting blend of Vietnam’s diverse cultural communities in the North and South, as well as the mixture of international visitors and expats, has created a unique new kind of queer community in the country that expands beyond borders to a movement that is gradually having an international impact.

Beyond clubs, bars, and drag shows, there are a growing number of safe spaces for queer folks together in Saigon and Hanoi, like iSEE’s multi-functional meeting space, Gõ LGBT Shop, and the ICS Hub Cafe. Hanoi Queer recently organized Queer History Month in conjunction with Hanoi Pride in September 2019, with a stated goal of “communicating the presence of the LGBTQ community and contribute to the celebration of diversity as part of the larger goal of pushing for the society’s recognition of LGBTQ people.” The Hanoi International Queer Film Week hosts queer film events in a major festival once a year and smaller recurring events throughout the year. 

Vietnam's LGBTQI+ CommunityImage source: facebook.com/VietnamQueerHistoryMonth

As more and more members of the community raise their voices and make themselves heard, the demand for queer spaces and queer gathering places has increased dramatically in the last decade. There are now more safe spaces and grassroots organizations than ever before in Vietnam’s history, though for now they are mostly concentrated in major urban centres like Saigon and Hanoi. 

Here and around the world, there is certainly much to be done in the struggle for equality, but in Vietnam there is a palpable sense of hope in the local LGBTQI+ community. A hope that inclusivity and acceptance of “alternative” gender identity and sexuality will soon become the norm, rather than the exception.

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