Metro Weekly

Vietnam Ends Conversion Therapy, Saying LGBTQ is “Not an Illness”

Advocates previously launched "Leave with Pride" campaign aimed at questioning the validity of classifying LGBTQ identity as an illness.

Tourist junks at Ha Long Bay, Vietnam – Photo by Lakhesis, via Dreamstime

Vietnam’s health ministry has said that being a member of the LGBTQ community is “not an illness” and cannot be treated or “converted in any way,” instructing medical providers to end the practice of conversion therapy.

The ministry issued a declaration earlier this month, noting that Vietnam’s health minister had received information that some health care establishments were claiming to offer “cures” for homosexuality. Based on that trend, and citing the World Health Organization’s removal of homosexuality and transgender identity from the International Classification of Diseases, the ministry sought to clarify that sexual minority status was not a disease and provide guidance to clinicians on how LGBTQ individuals should be treated in medical settings, reports UPI.

Guidelines set forth by the ministry declare that education needs to be strengthened so that medical providers have the correct information about “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” and that LGBTQ people should be treated equally in medical settings. The guidelines reiterate that LGBTQ identity cannot be treated as a disease, instructing health workers not to “interfere nor force treatment” on LGBTQ patients, and recommending that mental health services for LGBTQ people should be provided by people “who have the knowledge of sexual identity.”

The announcement is seen as a “huge paradigm shift” in a nation where same-sex unions were banned until 2013 and where transgender identity was criminalized until 2015, and where the government-run media had, two decades ago, declared homosexuality to be a “social evil” comparable to prostitution, gambling, and drug use. Already, some LGBTQ advocates are hoping the declaration will make it easier to lobby for marriage rights or legal recognition for same-sex couples.

“We cannot overstate how big a fix this announcement is,” Kyle Knight, an LGBTQ researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the English newspaper The Guardian. “While attitudes won’t change overnight, this marks a huge paradigm shift. As the most trusted source of medical authority in Vietnam, the impact on social perceptions of queerness will be enormous.

“The myth that homosexuality is diagnosable has been allowed to permeate and percolate Vietnamese society,” added Knight. “It is an underpinning factor in medical malpractice against LGBTQ+ youth.”

The ministry’s announcement was brought about after creative efforts by LGBTQ advocates.

Last November, representatives from the Institute for Studies of Society Economy and Environment (iSEE), a pro-LGBTQ advocacy organization, launched a “Leave with Pride” campaign intended to petition the World Health Organization in Vietnam to declare homosexuality not to be a mental illness or disease, reports Al Jazeera.

As part of that campaign, advocates created a stunt video to raise awareness for the campaign, which asked the question: If being LGBTQ is a disease, shouldn’t LGBTQ Vietnamese people be able to get sick leave? In the video, volunteers asked superiors for time off for their “homosexual disease.” The volunteers were berated, cursed at, and asked to leave without their request being granted.

Although the sick leave was never granted, the campaign was ultimately viewed as successful after WHO’s envoy in Vietnam issued a statement in April condemning any attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation, saying it “lacks medical basis and is unacceptable.”

Despite no longer classifying LGBTQ identity as an illness, there are questions around how the government will enforce its directive. If there is not sufficient enforcement, it is likely that conversion therapy efforts may continue, albeit perhaps more covertly. 

Particularly given the conservative nature of Vietnamese society, there is the possibility that LGBTQ-identifying people may be pushed into conversion therapy by family members, who view homosexuality as a mark against their family honor. As such, it will take time to change deep-rooted beliefs and overall societal attitudes towards LGBTQ identity. 

“Uprooting anti-LGBT beliefs in traditional Vietnamese society will require concerted effort … It’s not like just issuing an order and ‘presto’ everything changes overnight,” Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told Al Jazeera.

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