Somewhere to turn: Two men create refuges for their communities in Viet Nam
Gay and bisexual men and male sex workers face a lot of discrimination and harassment in Viet Nam. People in these communities may have a hard time, but they also have each other. Here, two men tell the stories of how they created a café and a clinic, respectively, to support the communities that have supported them. And the UN helps out.
“A gathering place”—Nguyen Trong Hung opens his café doors to the LGBT community
While in middle school, realizing that I was gay, the only thing I could do was torment and blame myself. My father left, my mom passed away, I was transferred from one relative’s house to another and suffered from both physical and mental harassment. This pattern repeated as I grow up: I wander a lot as a way to avoid my family and all the memories that come with them.
One time when I returned home, I noted down everything about my daily life in a diary and pretended to have forgotten it at a visible place with hopes that a family member could read it. Perhaps everybody read it, but no one said a thing. I was walking in limbo for a while, deciding whether to come out or not.
In 2013, a friend invited me to work in a coffee shop in Son La. For the very first time, I discovered my true voice and a community that I belonged to. I do not have to run away anymore!
Later, I opened my own coffee shop and turned it into a gathering place in Son La for the LGBT community, and for men who have sex with men. We even have a quick HIV testing service there! My roles are helping customers, communicating to change people’s behaviors, and helping HIV patients to access treatment.
Before coming out, I felt that my life was drenched in sorrow and pressure. With all the pressure taken off my shoulders, my life has now become an open book!
If there were a second chance, I would not have intentionally “forgotten” the diary, hoping that somebody would read it. With all the knowledge that I have now, I would proudly come out to my family as gay.
“My heart aches” — Minh Thuan starts a clinic for male sex workers
In my job as a sex worker, whatever clients want has to be met. The first days of sex work, having to meet clients’ requests, I experienced such excruciating pain that I would cry. After sex with one client, as I went into the bathroom, I blacked out and fell on my face.
I wanted to leave the city, but what could I live on? Working as a helper at construction sites would pay only a couple hundred VND—maybe a couple cents in US currency.
None of my friends, myself included, knew anything about HIV or HIV prevention. Whatever the clients said, we would believe them. Lots of us contracted HIV.
I still remember vividly every single word in a text message of a friend living with HIV as he left: “I will return to the village, don’t bother looking for me, I have HIV now, and I don’t want to continue living there to give it to you all.” Every time I think of that text message, my heart aches. I felt defeated. I cannot do anything to help him!
In 2009, I attended a community event for male sex workers, I was stunned to see how completely wrong I and my friends were about HIV. I became an outreach worker with a modest salary.
After a while, I formed the self-help group AloBoy, for the male sex worker community. It evolved into a community-based organization, and has been registered as a social enterprise. In 2019, we decided to open a community clinic, AloCare, that provides counseling and HIV and STI treatment for the community. I am very proud of our successes.
I want AloCare to continue and to always be with the community, so that there will no longer be such sad text messages like my friend’s.
The United Nations at work in Viet Nam
UNAIDS supports the reduction of stigma and discrimination towards MSM and transgender people, community empowerment and leadership, community-led innovations in HIV and health service delivery to facilitate community’s greater service uptake. It is working with community-led social enterprises, including the one under which AloCare Clinic is registered, with Nguyen Minh Thuan as the director, to provide emergency social and HIV/STI/health support for sex workers and other key HIV affected populations, including MSM and transgender people to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19.
UN agencies are working together to end gender-based violence in Viet Nam. Recent activity includes a project launched this year by UNICEF, UN Women, and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) to help government, NGOs, and CSOs address violence against women and children. UNICEF and UN Women teamed up to help protect women and children in COVID-19 quarantine centres. Also this year, UNFPA released a landmark study on violence against women, based on a model by the World Health Organization (WHO). The UN has long supported efforts to protect LGBTIQ people in diverse areas of life, including creating safer space for them, and speaks out on LGBTI issues.
Produced by UN Viet Nam. Adaptation from original stories posted to the UN Viet Nam website: [Humans of Courage] Nguyen Trong Hung - Leader of the MSM community in Son La and [Humans of Courage] Minh Thuan, Director, Thuan Truong social enterprise, Director and Coordinator AloCare Clinic. The stories were written by Doan Thanh Ha, Communications Consultant, UN Women, Nguyen Thi Nhung, Communications Consultant, UNAIDS. The adaptation was edited by Paul Vandecarr, Development Coordination Office. To learn more about the work taking place in Viet Nam, visit: https://vietnam.un.org/.