Hanoi – Once upon a very recent time, there was a fiftyish woman who lived in the highlands of central Vietnam. Our heroine had never been married and, to anyone’s knowledge, had never felt the yearning of romance. In another time, in another country, she might have been called “an old maid.”
Then through the miracle of the Internet she formed an unlikely friendship across the ocean with a Viet Kieu who, like her, was middle aged and never married. Their contact – by email, by phone – grew more intense, evolving into courtship. The pull was so strong that the Viet Kieu traveled across the ocean and the bond only grew stronger. They moved into together and lived happily ever – well, for a few weeks longer, until our heroine’s brother threw a fit. Two women, he figured, just aren’t supposed to fall in love with each other.
A few months ago, a US newspaper asked me to write a commentary about how Vietnamese authorities were considering the question of same-sex union. Nobody expected a quick change but the debate itself was considered a bold step forward. But a visit from one of my wife’s old friends – call him Tam – reminded me that progress is slow.
Tam told us about the star-crossed lovers in the highlands. He knows the story well because his sister is the Viet Kieu who came so far to find love and instead became the pivotal figure in a family drama. Why, I wondered, would the middle-aged woman’s brother decide that his sense of morality trump his sister’s freedom and happiness? (I was fleetingly reminded of the brother in a famous Vietnamese novel who ruins his sister’s life, and thus his niece’s, because he hated her husband as a matter of political doctrine. And yet the sister and niece remain loyal as a matter of family duty.)
Tam has extra reason for sympathy, because he is himself gay. He’s been out of the closet for nearly 20 years. He happens to live in one of America’s biggest gay communities, in a city where homosexuality is such a matter-of-fact part of life that he has straight friends who set up blind dates for him with other gay friends.
Perhaps no civil rights movement in history has moved with the alacrity of gay civil rights. More than two decades ago, when I covered the movement for the Los Angeles Times, same-sex union was considered a distant dream. Now the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of such unions, while various states still wrestle with the political debates.
The same is true, of course, for nations around the world. Russia’s intolerance came into focus in the preparations for the Winter Olympics. Many cultures are worse still, and sooner to stone civil unions rather than bless them. Vietnam seems to be moving, slowly, to the right side of history.
I like that phrase – the idea that history has a right side and a wrong side. When South Africa defended apartheid, they were clearly on the wrong side of history. Most Americans, I think, now believe the U.S. was on the wrong side of history when it turned Vietnam into a battleground. The idea of a historical right and wrong suggests progress toward a moral deal.
Back home in America, society’s shift regarding homosexuality – from moral dread, to guarded tolerance, to acceptance – is moving apace. The latest mini-drama concerns an all-American college football star who disclosed that he is gay ahead of professional draft that should turn him into a millionaire. Will teams still be willing to draft him? Will he be welcomed in the macho world of pro (American) football?
So far, the reaction is promising. A survey of pro (American) football players showed that more than 80 percent say they don’t care about a player’s sexual orientation if he can help them win. Some of the best sports journalism has reminded readers that pro sports have long included gay athletes who kept their private lives private. A Texas sportscaster won wide praise for a commentary about how pro sports teams, and their fans, routinely welcome and cheer shady characters with criminal records – but might freak out because a man happens to love another man.
How this taboo took root is lost in the mists of time. And it is so deep, Tam suggested, that many people are closeted from true selves. This was true for his sister and her lover, finding each other in middle age.
My thoughts drifted to my childhood in a tract of cookie-cutter homes filled with nuclear families. Growing up, I came to realize that at least two boys on Catalina Avenue were gay.
And now I find myself wondering about the two women who lived four doors down. We used to call them “the sisters.”
But were they really?