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Q&A: Former US Ambassador Ted Osius on Vietnam's LGBTQ Community

As Pride Month nears its end, we take a look back at a momentous period for Vietnam's LGBTQ community with one of its most prominent supporters.

Ted Osius became the United States' ambassador to Vietnam on December 16, 2014, following his appointment by then-President Barack Obama. Ambassador Osius had history in the country — he helped establish the American consulate in Saigon in 1997 — and was now the highest-ranking US official in Vietnam.

Between his arrival in the country and his departure from the State Department last October, Ambassador Osius, who is openly gay, became well-known for his enthusiastic support of Vietnam's LGBTQ community. He and his husband, Clayton Bond, who was also part of the US Foreign Service, frequently attended public events with their two children.

On one of the final days of 2018's Pride Month, I sat down with the former diplomat, who now lives in Saigon, to get his take on this time period and what it means to him personally.

 

When you were appointed ambassador to Vietnam, were you directed to advocate for LGBTQ issues?

It wasn't explicitly a mandate. The administration knew who they had hired for the job though, and it was very clear that both the White House and the State Department were big proponents of equality, especially equality of opportunity.

We arrived just after the National Assembly had decriminalized same-sex marriage [on June 19, 2014]. They didn't legalize it, but it took away the fines and penalties for same-sex marriage. This was a positive step, and I can’t take any credit for that.

We decided that the best thing we could do was to support the LGBTQ community and what they wanted. It's not our agenda, it's just us supporting them in terms of what they're seeking. The first thing they wanted was the right for transgender people to be able to change their gender on their identity card and to be able to get gender reassignment surgery in Vietnam legally.

That took some time but both of those were achieved. The civil code was passed, and it included the right for a transgender person to change their gender on their identity card and to get surgery. This was really encouraging.

What other aspects of equality did you work on?

The next thing we focused on was workplace inclusion. There are a lot of international companies that were really good on inclusion. Over time, I gathered them together and talked about what would make the most sense. KPMG started an affinity group for its gay employees. For some time the community's focus has been on inclusion in the workplace. People shouldn't have to hide who they are at work.

We tried to be supportive of that.

Did you see results from your involvement in the community?

We had to make a decision, you know, how visible that we wanted to be. There were times — Bubu Town [an annual LGBTQ-friendly event held at the American Club in Hanoi], ASEAN Pride, VietPride — where we would show up with our kids, because we wanted to show people that you can be gay and have families too. Those pictures got around and had an impact.

Former Ambassador Ted Osius (left) and his husband Clayton Bond (middle) at a VietPride parade in Saigon. Photo via Zing.

There was a young man who came to an event at the ambassador's residence and had his picture taken with me. He went back to his home province in the north and showed his picture to his father and said, "You know, the American ambassador is also gay."

His father said, "No no, that's not possible. The American ambassador couldn't be gay."

So he showed his dad pictures of me with my husband and our kids, and his father was really shocked. He started believing it was possible, maybe even for his son to have a job, a career, a family. That was really encouraging.

What other impacts did your visibility have?

People came up to us a lot or wrote to us on social media. I used to give talks at high schools all over the country, and at one talk at a high school in Hue there was like 800 people and I was talking about US-Vietnam relations. A girl stands up and says, "My parents want me to do this, but I want to do something else." I said that you've got to be who you are; you'll be happy being who you are. I'm not trying to talk you out of listening to your parents, but you need to be who you are. Then a young man stood up and asked, "Mister Ambassador, have you ever had difficulties being who you are because you're gay?"

I said well, yea, a lot of difficulties actually. When I started this career [in 1989] you couldn’t even think of an openly gay person becoming ambassador. That was impossible; we were being drummed out of the service and denied our security clearances. So we formed an affinity group. There was strength in numbers, and years later we got a non-discrimination policy so we couldn’t be fired for being gay.

Look, I became ambassador, so it actually turned out pretty well. I met my husband in the Foreign Service and we have kids. Being who you are works and is better than pretending to be somebody you aren’t. The kids clapped for a long time.

I thought that was a brave young man to have asked that question in front of all of his classmates.

Then, I was giving a talk just a few weeks ago at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics and I told that story. A kid came up to me afterwards and said that they had been in the audience in Hue. "I heard you, then did research, and found out there are other people like me," he said. Now he's doing well, he's a university student. It just felt like there were ripple effects from playing a visible role that had been good.

Did the fact that you are gay create any professional difficulties during your time as ambassador?

I wondered if there would be fallout, or people having difficulty dealing with me, and there really hasn't been. It was amazing to me that my husband was often invited to things. The vice foreign minister, basically my counterpart, was incredibly welcoming to my whole family. If there were people who didn't like it, they didn't say. Generally, we felt completely accepted. Maybe the fact that I speak Vietnamese was a big deal, so I encountered no difficulties for that reason.

We were really welcomed here by everybody.

How has the LGTBQ community in Vietnam changed since you arrived in 2014?

I think people are more and more visible. VietPride marches keep getting bigger, gay flag chapters keep opening. We've met people from the most remote parts of the country and they want to be who they are. My stance is that at some point marriage equality will probably reach Vietnam too. I think Vietnamese want to be part of the world. It's seen as being accepting and letting everybody have a chance to be happy and be who they are. It's not really contrary to Vietnamese values, though some people think that it is.

Do you think the fact that you were the ambassador for the US made a difference, as opposed to being the ambassador of a less powerful country?

I think the American ambassador is a pretty visible person in this country. I had a social media presence and a traditional media presence. I kind of expected I might get labeled the 'gay ambassador,' and what was interesting to me is that this didn't really happen. Maybe some people identified me as that, but I would go to provinces in the Mekong Delta or in the north and they would say, "Oh, you’re the ambassador who speaks Vietnamese, I’ve heard about you."

Then I would speak to them in Vietnamese, and I think I was the 'Vietnamese-speaking ambassador,' more than the 'gay ambassador.' It shows respect for Vietnam. Everything I did, I wanted to show the respect that I genuinely feel for Vietnam. I always wanted to show that I respect Vietnam’s history and culture, its literature and art.

It seems, then, that the LGBTQ agenda here is largely driven by Vietnamese organizations?

Vietnamese groups are driving this, and that's the way we thought it should be. Our judgment was, it's their society, it's their agenda, we're just showing our support for what they are striving for. It's not our place to set the agenda for Vietnamese society. I think that ties into what I was saying about respect. You can either truly respect a country and understand the differences, or try and tell them what to do, and I don't think it ever works to tell other people what to do. My view is that it was best to do it with respect.

That’s the right way to do diplomacy — you show respect. And if you can have some influence at the edges, great, but you don’t get to make the decisions as an outsider.

You mentioned that you arrived shortly after gay marriage was decriminalized. Were you aware that it was such a pivotal moment for Vietnam?

We knew it was a pivotal moment because the National Assembly was debating this for the first time. In the end, they almost got to marriage equality, but they didn’t quite get there. I went to Hong Kong for an Economist conference and there was someone from the Ministry of Justice there, and it was clear to me from the way he talked that Vietnam is ahead of a lot of Asian countries when it comes to equality. Way ahead of Japan, not ahead of Taiwan, but ahead of most ASEAN countries. There’s a bigger space here and more equality than in most of those countries.

What do you hope to see in the future?

I hope someday there will be marriage equality — I think that would be great. If people can’t love who they want to love, that’s a big inhibitor, and a difficult burden to bear. The big debate is, correctly, about if you can love who you love, then why shouldn’t you be able to marry them?

Do you think your advocacy as ambassador was effective?

I like to think we were able to contribute a little bit. Since people came up to me and said they were inspired to be who they are, as a result of seeing our family, I feel good about that, and I know Clayton also feels good about that. People would come up to us at restaurants and say, "You made it possible for me to talk to my parents," or "I’m living true to who I am and you helped me." We feel really good about that.

[Top photo via the US Embassy in Vietnam]


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