In Vietnam, an unlikely haven for gays - and a lucrative market

Mon Feb 29, 2016 6:04pm EST
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By My Pham

HANOI (Reuters) - If it had been in business a decade ago, Nguyen Anh Thuan's restaurant would have been a target for late-night police raids to arrest lawbreakers and stamp out "social evils".

But Comga Cafe, in the heart of Vietnam's capital, is no gambling den, after-hours bar or front for dealing drugs. It is an enterprise friendly to people of all sexual preferences in a one-party state where conservative values are strong.

Yet Thuan is experiencing success instead of resistance. Prejudice is giving way to some liberalism, he says, in a country often labeled a human rights abuser but now one of Asia's most progressive on gay, lesbian and transgender issues.

That has spawned a niche market of an estimated 1.6 million Vietnamese at a time of galloping growth, offering money-making opportunities to firms that provide services from travel and weddings to insurance and healthcare.

"Our business benefits a lot from the LGBT community," said Thuan, who also advises businesses on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, which are often abbreviated as LGBT.

"Many LGBT people hold high positions in big firms and don't have to hide themselves. Society is more open to them."

While transgender, gay and lesbian people are persecuted and even jailed in many Asian countries, Vietnam has quietly become a trailblazer, with laws to decriminalize gay marriage and co-habitation and recognize sex changes on identity documents.

"I see a lot more openness in Vietnam now," said Bach Linh, a lesbian. "Many LGBT people make lots of money and want to spend it. This will attract the attention of businessmen soon."   Continued...

A gay man is silhoutted on a gay rainbow flag during a demonstration for gay rights in Hanoi, Vietnam, November 24, 2015. REUTERS/Kham