Since their December arrival in Vietnam, U.S. Ambassador Ted Osius and his husband have become the most prominent gay couple in the Southeast Asian country.
Osius and Clayton Bond landed with their toddler son shortly before the government abolished its ban on same-sex marriage. Now the couple, who recently adopted an infant girl, find themselves ambassadors of the nascent LGBT rights movement spreading across the country.
“A lot of young people have reached out to me on Facebook, to say: ‘We are happy to see somebody who is gay and is happy in his personal life but also has had professional success’,” Osius said in an interview. “I don’t think of it as advocating as much as supporting Vietnamese civil society in doing what it is already doing.”
The Communist government’s revised marriage law, while not officially recognizing same-sex marriage, and its tolerance of pride events has made Vietnam a leader in gay rights in Southeast Asia, potentially opening up opportunities to attract the tourist “pink dollar” and business executives seeking a more tolerant environment.
Yet young gay Vietnamese say they can be ostracized in a patriarchal society in which heterosexual marriage and parenthood are seen as the path to happiness. The legal changes also sit oddly in a country that more broadly curbs political dissent, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mail.
Osius, 53, and Bond frequently appear together at official government gatherings and media events. Osius -- who is on his first posting as ambassador and has also worked in Indonesia and India -- always introduces his husband and often talks about their children, who are 19 months and five months.
“This is a core interest of ours with regard to human rights,” said Bond, 39. “People see us as an openly gay couple with kids serving our country. I hope people find that inspiring.”
While a small number of celebrities have held same-sex weddings, Osius and Bond are the most prominent gay couple in Vietnam, said Tung Tran, director of ICS, a Ho Chi Minh City-based group that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. They are also embraced by the larger population, reflecting the closer relationship being forged by Hanoi and Washington.
Osius and Bond, who have been married for 10 years, plan to renew their vows before U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during her visit to Hanoi later this month.
“They are the full package,” Tran said by phone. “They are married. They have a family. They are successful. They are our role models.”
Osius, a career diplomat, co-founded GLIFAA, a U.S. association for LGBT employees and families in foreign affairs agencies, in 1992. There are now six openly gay U.S. ambassadors, including Osius, Ambassador to Australia John Berry and Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford, said Regina Jun, president of the group.
Osius’ posting to Vietnam comes amid improved relations between Vietnam and the U.S., former enemies that have shared economic goals and strategic concerns about an increasingly assertive China in the region. Vietnam’s civil society is relatively robust, Osius said, even as its human rights record in other areas remains a hindrance to even warmer ties.
Vietnam held about 125 political prisoners at the end of 2014, fewer than in previous years, in part because of a drop in convictions, according to the U.S. State Department.
“Vietnam is trying to figure out what kind of country it wants to be and it doesn’t want to be China,” Osius said. “There is more openness. There is more inclusiveness in government.”
On gay rights the country has some way to go. Same-sex relationships can be viewed as bringing bad luck to a family, said Luong The Huy, legal officer at the Hanoi-based Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment.
“Families are usually the last people LGBTs come out to,” he said by phone. “The reactions can be harsh. Some are involuntarily treated by medical methods or get locked up in the house.”
The government is also debating transgender rights, said Le Quang Binh, chairman of the institute. This year 25 Viet Pride events will take place across the country, up from 17 in 2014, said Tran of ICS.
In other parts of Southeast Asia including Thailand, the push for gay rights has stalled. Countries such as Brunei and Malaysia can punish those who engage in gay behavior under Sharia law, Robertson said.
In Singapore, sex between men is illegal although rarely prosecuted. The city-state banned a song and video by Taiwanese singer Jolin Tsai’s about same-sex relationships, the Straits Times reported May 26.
“In many ways the region is getting more restrictive,” Jamie Gillen, a researcher of cultural geography at the National University of Singapore, said by phone. “Vietnam is something of an outlier. Vietnam has a live-and-let-live mentality.”
On the evening of July 31, Osius and Bond attended the kick-off of Hanoi’s Viet Pride weekend, which featured a bicycle rally through the heart of the city. He addressed about a hundred Vietnamese in a hall where rainbow banners covered a wall. Speaking in Vietnamese, Osius urged the gathering of young people to simply be who they are.
“This stuff hits right at home,” he said after the speech, tears welling. “Yeah, it hits right at home.”