Vietnam last week took a major step forward in the recognition of LGBTQ rights, with the country’s Ministry of Health stating that being gay, bisexual, or transgender is not a disease and urging medical practitioners to end discrimination in medical care.
On August 3, the country’s Ministry of Health published a document stating that “homosexuality cannot be ‘cured’, does not need ‘to be cured’ and cannot be changed.” Citing the World Health Organization’s removal from its list of mental illnesses in 1990, the ministry urged medical professionals to be “respectful” of gender and sexual orientation.
“Do not consider homosexuality, bisexuality or being transgender a disease,” it instructed. “Do not coerce members of these groups into medical treatment. If any, only provide psychiatric help, which must be conducted by experts with knowledge of gender identities.” When undertaking medical care for homosexual, bisexual, and transsexual patients, health providers “must be fair and respectful of their sexuality and must not discriminate against these groups,” it added.
According to an article published by Saigoneer, from which the above-translated excerpts of the statement were taken, the Ministry’s intervention came after a local advocacy group, the Center for Supporting Community Development Initiatives (SCDI), raised concerns about the growing number of medical clinics claiming to be able to “cure homosexuality.” Nguyen Thi Kim Dung, an official from SCDI, told VnExpress that her center has received various messages from members of the LGBT community who were taken to hospitals by family members to rectify their “homosexual illness.”
While the Health Ministry’s directive is rudimentary compared to recent progress in the West – the American Psychiatric Association removed the diagnosis of “homosexuality” from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1973, for instance – it nonetheless marks a significant step forward in the Vietnamese context.
By regional standards, Vietnam’s official stance on LGBTQ issues is hardly the most regressive; in 2014, the country’s National Assembly removed same-sex unions from a list of forbidden relationships. But in a 2020 report, the U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch noted that the gap between promises and implementation was considerable. The report showed children are often taught by both teachers and parents that being gay is a mental illness, while young LGBTQ people continue to “face stigma and discrimination at home and at school.”
Despite promises from the Vietnamese government to recognize the rights of LGBTQ people, it noted that progress had lagged, and “these policy gaps are felt acutely by young people.” While the government decriminalized same-sex unions, it has not yet allowed for positive legal recognition of same-sex relationships. Similarly, a 2015 update to the Civil Code that removed the prohibition against transgender people from changing their legal gender was not accompanied by “a transparent and accessible procedure” for doing so.
Much of this no doubt reflects the ingrained social conservatism of Vietnamese society, and the government’s concern about running too far ahead of public sentiment. That said, the recent progress of other nations that once criminalized homosexuality and treated it as a mental illness indicates that social norms are not set in stone, and can shift with remarkable rapidity in the right circumstances
While there are many steps yet to be taken, last week’s Health Ministry ruling suggests that the government has the potential to lead this progress in the years to come.