Constructing Queerness in Vietnam: Essentialism, Homonormativity, and Social Hierarchy

The text is based on the article “Constructing Queerness in Vietnam” published in the English edition of Sosiologia, 4/2017.

The modern socialist republic of Vietnam is characterized by Raffin (2008) as a nation with a hybrid identity shaped by both Western imperialism and communist ideals. This refers to Vietnam’s extensive history of colonial contact with both the West and the East, which makes this nation an interesting site to study the interplay between different value systems. How queerness is conceptualized and treated in Vietnam reflects this complex position. During the 90s, queerness was extremely stigmatized in the Vietnamese society due to the strong influences from Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Catholicism, which altogether reinforced the view that queerness is a moral disorder against nature. This stigmatization has been greatly challenged in the last decade through the impact of globalization and LGBTQ activism, which has transformed the way gender and sexuality are perceived in Vietnam.

Such positive changes were initially what motivated me to begin this research project. As a feminist researcher, I was interested in studying the life experiences of Vietnamese queer youth in a time-period when there was, seemingly, less exclusion and marginalization. My focus in this research article is how these young people conceptualize their queerness within a changing social structure, where notions of pride and individuality replace the discourse of shaming, and visibility tactics replace the politics of exclusion.

In a close and complex manner, identities are always tied to the society in which they are made to be understood. My research, therefore, not only addresses how these subjects construct their identities and social relationships but also reveals a collective image of this Vietnamese queer youth community. Sadly, it is a picture of hierarchical relations, of in-group division and discrimination. Through my interviews and fieldwork observations, I have seen a fragmented queer community that upholds the norms of heterosexuality and gender roles. This, in turn, creates a new social reality with new rules, codes of conduct, and accordingly, new definitions for deviance. Lisa Duggan (2003) describes this tendency as “homonormativity,” the idea that queer politics, instead of challenging heteronormativity and gender roles, upholds these norms in its practices. My article in Sosiologia 4/2017 uses this concept to shed light on the experiences of Vietnamese queer youth: through “homonormativity”, I analyze how these young people conform and replicate heteronormativity through a pursuit of a gender-normative appearance and relationships that sustain heterosexual roles. Worth noting is that this conformity does not in any way address or critique the institution of heteronormativity which sustains the notion of a “natural” role applying for each gender and the tendency to assume gender through sex. As a result, the upholding of homonormativity leads to the marginalization of certain queer groups, such as transgender people and bisexuals, whose queerness does not fit into this model of gender normativity.

Another aspect that this research article investigates is how values of class and consumerism are attached to the perceived ideal queer identity. These values manifest through the pursuit of cultural beauty, whether through the body or through the way one dresses and acts in public. Class values also create a moral dichotomy between the “acceptable” queers versus the low-class queers whose “dubious” morality and self-presentation are considered a threat to the legitimation of the queer community as a whole. As a consequence, a social hierarchy emerges in this queer community within which middle-class, homonormative queers are positioned at the top, where they can legitimize their prejudice against other queer subgroups.

This research serves as a critique of a type of social activism that upholds rather than resists the values of dominant institutions. In the case of LGBTQ activism, the adherence to essentialism and homonormativity sustains the notion that only identities considered natural and normative are worthy of respect and recognition. Given the postcolonial context of Vietnam, this research also shows how the receptivity to knowledge and discourse developed in the West entails a rejection of prevailing traditional knowledge, culture and definitions. The findings of this study demonstrate that identity politics can be used as a vehicle for social change, economic action, and cultural imperialism, as well as for managing identities through the politics of exclusion.

Text by Yên Mai

Duggan, Lisa. 2003. The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. Boston: Beacon Press.
Raffin, Anne. 2008. “Postcolonial Vietnam: hybrid modernity.” Postcolonial Studies 11:3, 329-344.