by Nguyen Thu Hien
HA NOI — It took only a few minutes for Jessica, 26, a transgender woman, to pass through the customs gate at Noi Bai International Airport.
No one interrogated her about the difference between her appearance and the gender printed on her passport.
The customs officer only smiled and suggested she should change her name.
However, she is not legally allowed to do so.
The country's LGBT population, now more than 1.7 million, enjoys far greater social acceptance than just a few years ago. Yet discrimination is still a major problem.
Still, speaking at Viet Nam's first National LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Community Dialogue, Jessica was upbeat about the country's progress.
When she first planned to switch genders several years ago, she got no information or help from Vietnamese experts. Left on her own, she took hormonal supplements that negatively affected her bones as well as her mental state.
But today, LGBT community forums offer those in her position plenty of advice, she said.
Tran Thi Hanh, mother of a gay child, said clubs for parents of LGBT individuals have also come into operation, helping parents understand the problems their children face.
"All parents are shocked to be informed about their children's real gender identity," she said. "Appropriate information can help them feel closer to their children."
Huynh Minh Thao, officer of Information, Connecting and Sharing (ICS), a community organization of LGBT people, said the media had played an important role in changing people's opinions.
Many LGBT-related events are now held in Ha Noi, HCM City, Can Tho and Da Nang.
"LGBT people are just like us. They deserve to be respected and treated equally. They should have all the rights that we do," said Ha Thu Le, a Hanoian student.
UNDP Country Director Louise Chamberlain acknowledged the efforts of the Vietnamese Government to address the struggles of LGBT citizens and their parents, family and friends.
She welcomed the government's removal of gender-specific terms from the draft amendment of the Constitution 1992 as well as ongoing discussions to legally recognise same-sex co-habitation and relationships.
"Such recognition would be a significant cornerstone in eliminating discrimination and achieving equality for all," Chamberlain said.
However, many laws continue to further discriminate against LGBT individuals. Transgender people are not allowed to change their names and same-sex people are still not permitted to get married.
LGBT individuals also continue to face discrimination in schools, health clinics, workplaces and even at home.
Jessica said many health clinics refuse to treat her and accept her health insurance.
Albert, from central Da Nang City, said many LGBT people are beaten daily by their parents.
"Their parents love them but it is impossible to accept them," he said.
Rather than accepting their children, many parents bring children to hospitals for treatment and force them to marry people they do not love, Albert said.
UNDP Country Director Louise Chamberlain said the findings from today's discussion would be included in a report on the situation of LGBT people in Viet Nam and a publication on being LBGT in Asia.
The dialogue was part of Being LGBT in Asia, a regional research initiative by USAID and UNDP to promote understanding of the challenges LGBT people face in terms of stigma and discrimination and move towards LGBT-inclusive development within USAID, UNDP and development partners through research reports and multimedia products. — VNS