Vietnam: Marriage, authoritarianism, and social control

Dykes on bikes, Hanoi style: © AFP

Hanoi held its first LGBT Pride on August 5, a march-cum-ride that went from the National Stadium to a downtown park.

Dozens of cyclists decorated with balloons and rainbow flags streamed through the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi on Sunday for the first gay pride parade in the nation’s history.

Organised by the city’s small but growing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, the event went ahead peacefully with no attempt by police to stop the colourful convoy of about 100 activists, despite their lack of official permits. …

“We don’t have permission for this and even if we had asked for official permission it would not have been possible,” said Van Anh, to the AFP news agency. “But we have a lot of support from Vietnamese society. Many people told me they want to attend the parade,” she added.

That’s from an AlJazeera English report (it’s almost as fascinating to have a Qatar-based news outlet devoting extensive coverage to sexuality these days). AP adds:

Demonstrators trailed rainbow-colored streamers and shouted “Equal rights for gays and lesbians!” and “We support same-sex marriage!”

It was a scene that was unimaginable a few years ago, when Vietnam still labeled homosexuality a “social evil” alongside drug addiction and prostitution. The country’s gay community was once so underground that few groups or meeting places existed, and it was taboo to even talk about the issue.

There are many more pictures here. 

Breaking away: © Reuters

This comes after Vietnam’s government announced in late July that it would address the status of same-sex couples, possibly with provisions for same-sex marriage, in a coming overhaul of marriage laws:

Video of Vietnam’s first publicized gay wedding went viral online in 2010, and a few other ceremonies followed, capturing widespread public attention. The Justice Ministry now says a legal framework is necessary because the courts do not know how to handle disputes between same-sex couples living together. The new law could provide rights such as owning property, inheriting and adopting children.

“I think, as far as human rights are concerned, it’s time for us to look at the reality,” Justice MinisteHà Hùng Cường said Tuesday in an online chat broadcast on national TV and radio. “The number of homosexuals has mounted to hundreds of thousands. It’s not a small figure. They live together without registering marriage. They may own property. We, of course, have to handle these issues legally.”

As I grow older I find I am becoming Eeyore, always determined to look at the unbright side of life. God forbid I should rain on this parade of cyclists, or their courage (AFP notes that the parade website warned each marcher to “consider his/her personal circumstances and the risks possibly involved before participation”).

Yet this march is no sign of widespread social liberalization. Vietnam remains an extremely repressive polity, and other politically as well as socially marginally groups still bear the brunt. Here’s more news from yesterday:

Vietnamese police detained at least 20 people on Sunday as they broke up a protest in Hanoi against Beijing’s territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea, witnesses said.

Demonstrators were forced into waiting buses and taken to a rehabilitation centre usually used to detain sex workers and drug users, after attempting to gather in defiance of a heavy police presence, one detainee told AFP.

“There are at least 25 people here and there are arrestees elsewhere,” the person — who requested anonymity for security reasons — said by telephone from the Loc Ha detention centre. [emphasis added]

Or this, from last week — one reflection of a growing government campaign to imprison dissident bloggers:

The mother of a prominent Vietnamese blogger has died from her injuries after setting herself on fire in front of government offices, her family says.

She was protesting against the detention of her daughter, Ta Phong Tan, who is facing charges of anti-state propaganda, another daughter told the BBC’s Vietnamese service.

Dang Thi Kim Lieng set herself alight in southern Bac Lieu province. Her daughter faces trial in August and could be jailed for 20 years.

Ta Phong Tan

Ta Phong Tan, a former police officer, wrote a blog called Cong ly va su (Justice and Truth), drawing attention to state abuses and demanding social justice. Arrested last September, she faces trial this month and could be sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Cuba, of course, also indicated recently that it may move toward same-sex marriage, under the stewardship of Mariela Castro, President Raul’s daughter. The cases seem to me remarkably similar. Both are authoritarian governments, with Communist parties still steeped in the repression of dissent, and powerful histories of social control. Both seem to have decided that the best way to deal with a new, increasingly visible and vocal minority without a clear or oppositional political agenda is to integrate it into the existing structures of society and subordination. They rely on recognition to contain it, and marriage is one of the most trustworthy containers around.

Nikolai Krylenko, b. 1885, shot 1938: I know a stinky secretive bordello when I see one

Authoritarian governments do not like invisible groups, sneaking around in the subterranean structures of society. They want a transparent life-world, with everybody’s activities fully exposed like ants in an ant farm, or happy hamsters. The instinctive response to identities that prefer the safety of occlusion is to drag them kicking and screaming into the light– the switchless light of prison, under the perpetually buzzing electric bulbs of the Lubyanka.  Stalin’s prosecutor Nikolai Krylenko famously expressed these fears, and this solution, in clarifying why the dictator recriminalized homosexual conduct in the 1930s. Homosexuals were subversives, he shouted:

Classless hoodlums, either from the dregs of the society, or from the remains of the exploiters’ class. They have no place to go. So they take to — pederasty. Together with them, next to them, under this excuse, in stinky secretive bordellos another kind of activity takes place as well — counter-revolutionary work.

The traditional response of repression is not always the best-working one, however. Sometimes, if you can’t beat them to a pulp, it’s better to join them. Or, more properly, to make them join you.  Recognition is a comparatively painless way of easing the invisible into the light. Recognition in marriage is potentially a splendid means of identifying, registering, and integrating dissident sexualities, subjecting them to a state-defined structure that normalizes and depoliticizes them, nullifying and Novocaining any residual anti-social impulse.

There’s a pretty extensive literature on how marriage serves this function, even (or especially) in ostensibly democratic societies. After the Civil War and emancipation, for instance white American leaders hoped to shove or shovel former slaves into marriages, expecting that legal recognition of their relationships would impose on them a new form of institutional regulation — and would tame them for membership in a contract-dominated society. Tamara Nopper describes some of the motives as well as consequences:

African Americans were aggressively pushed to marry and register their marriages with the state.  Registration policies (and the granting of certain rights to Blacks in general) also became a means to police and criminalize African Americans.  For example, Blacks who married and failed to register with the state were prosecuted.  Demonstrating the afterlife of slavery, the attempts of slaves to express some emotional autonomy and forge their own marriages (without the legal ability to contract) on plantations became the basis of social control in the post-Emancipation period.  Black codes in different states declared slave couples who lived together during slavery as legally married.  … In cases where a Black man might have multiple spouses, Freedmen’s Bureau agents would designate the Black woman with the most children to be his wife. Additionally, these policies and practices served as forms of privatization and anti-Black austerity as “the government used marriage to financially and socially domesticate newly freed Blacks to ensure that the white public faced minimal responsibility for former slaves’ economic security.”  Put simply, instead of reparations, African Americans got marriage.

And Nopper detects in so-called “welfare reform” a contemporary, neoliberal revival of this push:

the message is very simple

While some have described how Americanization campaigns encouraged marriage among immigrants during the Progressive Era or how gay marriage was facilitated by some city and local governments in the early 2000s, the most striking example of governments promoting marriage among U.S. minorities is the targeting of African Americans.  ….

As several scholars and analysts emphasize, contemporary welfare reform, primarily targeted at the mythical “Black welfare queen” (despite the diversity of welfare recipients), pushed marriage among poor women as a solvent for poverty and female-headed households.  Indeed, as Priya Kandaswamy points out, the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) begins with the following “finding” from Congress: “(1) Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.”  … PRWORA enacted, among other draconian measures, “stricter paternity identification practices” designed to force poor women to become more dependent on men with whom they had children (men who were most likely also poor).  With little consideration for the dynamics of the relationship (be it violent or collegial), poor women were expected to maintain a particular type of relationship with men than to continuously access state support for taking care of themselves and their children.

Cuba and Vietnam are authoritarian in a different way from the United States, and they lack the full flowering of the US’s racial paranoia about a segregated underclass. But in confronting the sudden emergence of uncontrolled and unregulated forms of sexuality, their inchoate responses so far have a certain similarity to post-slave society, post-Great Society America.

A few examples do not a tendency make, but I wonder to what degree societies in the grip of authoritarianism (either in its neoCommunist or neoliberal versions, which in any case clearly are on the merge) will find same-sex marriage a useful tool for co-opting and controlling a novel social group.

China will perhaps be the test case. Right now, China is having enough problems with heterosexual marriages to keep it busy. If the People’s Republic starts moving toward recognizing same-sex unions, though, the rhetoric about marriage equality as a new step toward freedom will deserve a bit of re-examination.

But then, who am I to say? I’m Eeyore. Don’t pay any attention to me.


“I have always said when I accepted the Lord, I became more tolerant of others”


The legislature of Washington (the state, not the capital) in the US will vote soon to become the seventh state recognizing same-sex marriage. The deciding vote will come from State Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, who announced her commitment yesterday, after long deliberation. Here is what she said:

“For several weeks now, I have heard from the people of my district. They’ve shared what’s in their hearts and minds.

“I have received many letters, emails, phone calls, very heartfelt, from both sides of the issue. I’ve also received a number of very negative comments from both sides.

“For some people, this is a simple issue. I envy them. It has not been simple or easy for me.

“To some degree, this is generational. Years ago I took exception to my parents’ beliefs on certain social issues, and today my children take exception to some of mine. Times change, even if it makes us uncomfortable. I think we should all be uncomfortable sometime. None of us knows everything, and it’s important to have our beliefs questioned. Only one being in this world is omniscient, and it’s not me.

“I have very strong Christian beliefs, and personally I have always said when I accepted the Lord, I became more tolerant of others. I stopped judging people and try to live by the Golden Rule. This is part of my decision. I do not believe it is my role to judge others, regardless of my personal beliefs. It’s not always easy to do that. For me personally, I have always believed in traditional marriage between a man and a woman. That is what I believe, to this day.

“But this issue isn’t about just what I believe. It’s about respecting others, including people who may believe differently than I. It’s about whether everyone has the same opportunities for love and companionship and family and security that I have enjoyed.

“For as long as I have been alive, living in my country has been about having the freedom to live according to our own personal and religious beliefs, and having people respect that freedom.

“Not everyone will agree with my position. I understand and respect that. I also trust that people will remember that we need to respect each other’s beliefs. All of us enjoy the benefits of being Americans, but none of us holds a monopoly on what it means to be an American. Ours is truly a big tent, and while the tent may grow and shrink according to the political winds of the day, it should never shrink when it comes to our rights as individuals.

“Do I respect people who feel differently? Do I not feel they should have the right to do as they want? My beliefs dictate who I am and how I live, but I don’t see where my believing marriage is between a man and a woman gives me the right to decide that for everyone else.

“I’ve weighed many factors in arriving at this decision, and one of them was erased when the legislation heard today included an amendment to clearly provide for the rights of a church to choose not to marry a couple if that marriage contradicts the church’s view of its teachings. That’s important, and it helped shape my decision.

“My preference would be to put this issue on the ballot and give all Washingtonians the opportunity to wrestle with this issue, to search their hearts as I have, and to make the choice for themselves. But I do not know that there are the votes to put it to a ballot measure. So, forced to make a choice, my choice is to allow all men and women in our state to enjoy the same privileges that are so important in my life. I will vote in favor of marriage equality.

“I know this announcement makes me the so-called 25th vote, the vote that ensures passage. That’s neither here nor there. If I were the first or the seventh or the 28th vote, my position would not be any different. I happen to be the 25th because I insisted on taking this much time to hear from my constituents and to sort it out for myself, to reconcile my religious beliefs with my beliefs as an American, as a legislator, and as a wife and mother who cannot deny to others the joys and benefits I enjoy.

“This is the right vote and it is the vote I will cast when this measure comes to the floor.”

Culture, class, and Newt’s sex life

In the end, all those marriages didn’t matter. Conservatives have become remarkably kind, forgiving people.  Just under fifty years ago, in 1964 a rabid right-wing crowd at the Republican Convention drowned out Nelson Rockefeller with shouts of “You dirty lover!”—because he had divorced his wife.  But through their devoted love for Ronald Reagan (the first divorced US president), the Republican Party was clearly purged of all desire to pass judgment.  Despite all the evidence of Newt Gingrich’s polyamory, on Saturday he won a landslide in South Carolina anyway.

You’ll remember Dr. Keith Ablow, the Fox News psychologist who warned last year that Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars would cause the world’s children to doubt their gender identities. This weekend, he reappeared to reassure us that Newt Gingrich’s infidelities would actually make him a stronger president. Although “the media can’t seem to help itself from trying to castrate candidates” (wait: wouldn’t that be an end to all the sellable, sexy stories? and what were they doing to Michelle Bachmann?), he says:

I will tell you what Mr. Gingrich’s personal history actually means for those of us who want to right the economy, see our neighbors and friends go back to work, promote freedom here and abroad and defeat the growing threat posed by Iran and other evil regimes. …

1) Three women have met Mr. Gingrich and been so moved by his emotional energy and intellect that they decided they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with him.

2) Two of these women felt this way even though Mr. Gingrich was already married.

3 ) One of them felt this way even though Mr. Gingrich was already married for the second time, was not exactly her equal in the looks department and had a wife (Marianne) who wanted to make his life without her as painful as possible.

Conclusion: When three women want to sign on for life with a man who is now running for president, I worry more about whether we’ll be clamoring for a third Gingrich term, not whether we’ll want to let him go after one.

4) Two women—Mr. Gingrich’s first two wives—have sat down with him while he delivered to them incredibly painful truths …

Conclusion: I can only hope Mr. Gingrich will be as direct and unsparing with the Congress, the American people and our allies.

There are, to be sure, some flaws in this argument. For one thing, the brutal verities Newt spoke to his successive wives weren’t on the order of “You’re spending more than you’re investing!  Medicare is doomed!  You need to do something about the trade imbalance with China!”  They were more like, “I’m leaving you for someone prettier.”   By this analogy, Americans may not get the chance to beg him for a third term.   Midway through the first, he’s likely to run off and become president of a younger, blonder country with bigger breasts: Ukraine? or Estonia?

Gingrich, with spouses no. 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 ...

I also wonder about Dr. A’s comparison of the sinewy, masculine American Republic to a series of easily bamboozleable women.  Isn’t this even more likely to cause gender confusion in children than Chaz Bono?  And what about our heroic men in the Fighting Forces, who by his argument will wake up after the Inauguration to find that not only can they ask and tell, but they are metaphorically married to Newt Gingrich?   The one silver lining for the right wing is that this prospect makes even me want to ban same-sex marriage anywhere and everywhere, lest I rouse myself some morning after a drunken binge to discover I am on a Niagara honeymoon with my Big Newton.

The real reason Newt won in South Carolina, though, was clearly that he took up a weapon little deployed by his party: class struggle. It wasn’t simply that he accused Mitt Romney, accurately enough, of being a corporate equivalent of Sigourney Weaver’s sci-fi foe: moving from company to company, world to world, infecting — or investing — with his virus and then squeezing the place of jobs and life to turn a profit. It was that he made Mitt look for once like what he is. He is a stiff, ambitious, extremely rich man with no fixed beliefs, who for the last ten years has planned to buy the Presidency: the politician as shopper.

Nixon in '68: Whiter, please, whiter

South Carolina’s a strange, strange universe. It’s the birthplace of today’s Republican Party. Old Strom Thurmond, its segregationist eternal Senator, switched from Democrat to Republican in the 60’s, and taught Richard Nixon his “Southern Strategy,” how to lure white racists into the GOP and change the political temper of the whole region. It has a long tradition of elite, autocratic politics. (It was the last state in the Union to permit its population to vote for US President, instead preserving for more than a century the tradition of letting the state legislature choose electors.)  Its establishment, however, is always wary of populist earthquakes: that particularly Southern form of populism in which rich whites watch the poor whites roused to anger, and try desperately — and usually successfully — to channel their rage toward anybody but themselves. Newt, adept at the tradition, got the masses’ mouths foaming at the news media, at black people (the “food stamp president”) … and at Mitt Romney.

The Washington Post points out today that Newt makes a strange populist.

That’s weird: … the candidate who has been in Washington the longest, who has spent the most time on the Sunday shows, who has the deepest rolodex of New York media elites, who has been third-in-line for the presidency, is running as some kind of insurgent.

But that misses the point of his real disaffection, which is intellectual, and rooted in his past. Newt is part of a thoroughly lumpen class, the professorial proletariat.

Gingrich, of course, is sure that he’s one of the great minds of all time. He famously scribbled during a meeting:

Gingrich — primary mission
Advocate of civilization
Definer of civilization
Teacher of the Rules of Civilization
Arouser of those who Fan Civilization
Organizer of the pro-civilization activists
Leader (Possibly) of the civilizing forces

Who else could claim that? Prospero? Kurtz?  And of course, almost everybody makes fun of this. Joan Didion, in a brilliant essay, detected in his maundering “not the future but the past, the drone of the small-town autodidact, the garrulous bore in the courthouse square.”

But you have to consider where that mind of his came from. He got his B.A. from Emory, his Ph.D. from Tulane, both respectable schools. He finished a dissertation on “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945–1960,” and spent some time in Brussels (but not Congo) researching it.  (Belgian education policy in the Congo, of course, was not to educate any Congolese.) One regards the dissertation as a potential source of horror –the horror! — given his subsequent comments about our Mau-Mau in Chief:

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?”

Historian Adam Hochschild read the dissertation, and found it dull rather than appalling. But he does suggest that Gingrich never tried to comprehend resistance to colonialism: “He cites interviews with one American and seven Belgians — but not a single Congolese, though there were hundreds living in Europe and the United States he could have talked to.” There’s a basic lack of intellectual curiosity there.

I am the Definer of Civilization, and your paper is due Friday

Which was punished. On finishing the magnum opus, Newt found himself teaching history and geography at West Georgia College, in Carrollton, the former Fourth District Agricultural and Mechanical School. As a recovered academic, I am sure this is an estimable institution. But for the young Ph.D., it is exile. For the aspiring genius, it is Dickens toiling in the blacking factory. For an ambitious assistant prof, it’s Ovid in Tomis, Dreyfus on Devil’s Island; it’s running seminars in Kafka’s Penal Colony, and writing syllabi on one’s own lacerated flesh. Nor did Newt do well even there, in the Sahara of the geistlichen Wissenschaften. In 1978, they denied him tenure.  If he hadn’t got himself elected to Congress the same year, God knows what would have become of him.

These days, Newt is an real live author, who’s published 23 books, many of them arguably in English. When he talks about rebellion against the “elites,” though, it’s not hard to hear which ones he means most vividly, which enemies are nearest his heart. They’re the PhDs who went on to the good schools, the Dukes and Vanderbilts, the Harvards and Yales: the ones who got the great jobs, the ones whose dissertations made their way into print and praise, the ones for whom tenure waited patiently like a blond, young, buxom-chested Estonian bride. The ones who succeeded!

Hochschild notes that if Newt were elected, he’s be the first President with a Ph.D. since Woodrow Wilson.   Well, yes. But he’d also be one of a small company of modern Presidents who never supped up knowledge at an Ivy League school.  Since Herbert Hoover, only Truman, Nixon, and Carter have failed to attend upon such a holy place; and Nixon went to Duke Law School, which is almost as tony. (He was accepted at Harvard, but had to decline because of family illness, adding another to the pyramid of chips on his shoulder.)   In fact, all the rest except Eisenhower completed part of their education at either Harvard or Yale. (I include Eisenhower, though he was a simple barefoot general from Kansas, because he actually served as President of Columbia University before he took on the leadership of the whole enchilada.)

Before FDR, there was Wilson (President of Princeton), and Teddy Roosevelt (Harvard boy); but before then it’s mostly a long procession of the self- and ill-educated, knowing no history and unknown to it now. The US Presidency was simply not very important before the second Roosevelt. Back then, it was a ceremonial job concerned with overseeing Cabinet meetings,  certifying ambassadors, and cutting ribbons.

All day long the right hon. lord of us all sits listening solemnly to bores and quacks. … Anon there comes a day of public ceremonial, and a chance to make a speech. Alas, it must be made at the annual banquet of some organization that is discovered, at the last minute, to be made up of gentlemen under indictment, or at the tomb of some statesman who escaped impeachment by a hair. Twenty million voters with IQ’s below 60 have their ears glued to the radio; it takes four days’ hard work to concoct a speech without a sensible word in it. Next day a dam must be opened somewhere. Four Senators get drunk and try to neck a lady politician built like an overloaded tramp steamer. The Presidential automobile runs over a dog. It rains.

The elites who ruled the country cared very little about vetting the office’s occupants. Only the vast extension of state power in the New Deal made the Presidency truly vital. When that happened, suddenly it became crucial that its holders bear an Ivy imprimatur, proof that they were loyal to the System, having passed through its intestinal tests and come out the kind of guys who brown-nosed, worshipped the Institution, and rallied for the Team.

And Newt isn’t. He doesn’t carry the certificate or wear the proof. That’s the measure of his outsiderness: the intellectual resentment of a toiling academic who never won the kudos, never made good.

But he’s enough of an intellectual to know what “culture” is. And that’s his devastating potential at this juncture in the life of the Republican party, and possibly the United States.

Conservative populism is a strange thing (like South Carolina). Its great secret, both strength and weakness,is this: Its exponents cannot talk about class for very long. They have to change the subject to something else.

Statue of Tillman, on the S.C. Capitol grounds

Modern conservatism, after all — the post-1848, bourgeois kind — developed not in order to affirm the aristocracy (the task of the old variety) but to suppress and conquer labor.   Its whole birth and formation was a vast change of the subject, away from the reality of class, production, exploitation, and toward ideals of social stability. For a long time in the United States, right-wing populists had a ready theme to switch to, when the switching time came: Race.   White populists in the South performed the explicit service of keeping the white poor’s anger focused on the black poor, not on their rich white oppressors.  “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, the longtime Senator from South Carolina at the last century’s sharp turn, got his start in politics by massacring black freedmen in an 1876 riot. He called this “having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them [guess who] as was justifiable.” The stress was not just on the killing, but the superiority. The whites with their miserable, dirt-poor lives needed to believe in something, and Tillman gave the racial myth to sustain them.

This doesn’t work as openly anymore, though Gingrich can certainly dabble in it when Juan Williams, or some other anti-colonial interlocutor, is at hand. But “culture” is the new distraction from class, the new change of subject.

“New” is perhaps not the right word: the right has invoked “culture” at least since the ’60s, not just in the US but in country after country worldwide, to replace a discourse of injustice and justice with one of invasion versus belonging. “Distraction” is perhaps not the right word, either. “Culture” is a translation of class division, into a different register where the enemies’ identities can be shifted, and the revolutionary options of reappropriation or redistribution blunted or annealed. Those of us who work in the field of sexuality know this register all too well. It’s the hue and cry that something alien is intruding, that you‘re not part of our culture, that whatever rights you claim to represent don’t belong. It’s been used to change the subject from Ghana to Singapore.

Gingrich is the perfect mouth for this language, the perfect voice for this version of ressentiment. Because, of course, he is an intellectual, in the American sense. He has drunk up the deep desire and tendency of American academia — equally the mark of the old humanism and the new postmodernism — to see history in terms of the cloudy abstractions of culture, and not the material realities of money, conflict, and class.  He knows how to dig a ditch and channel this seething magma out there, all the stuff of lost jobs and foreclosed houses and folks living in mobile homes, into a fiery onslaught on the “cultural elites.”

He did it when he won South Carolina.  “The American elite media Is trying to force us to quit being Americans.” “The elites in Washington and New York,” Obama’s “extremist left wing friends in San Francisco,” the “growing anti-religious bigotry of our elites” — it was all there. He’s as good at this as Mugabe going after Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson!

His ability to meld class attack with the language of culture makes him a particularly potent demagogue right now.  The man and the hour have met, and both of them have set out to screw Mitt Romney. I am certainly not predicting that Romney — who has about ten million dollars in his pocket for every book Gingrich ever wrote — is going down to defeat.  If the day comes when money doesn’t matter in the Republican party, it’ll be a strange day indeed. But since the 2008 crash, we’ve been waiting in apprehension, breaths bated, for the true right-wing demagogue inevitably to emerge, in the way one attends on American Idol to cough up the semester’s fated celebrity. It suddenly makes sense that Newt the Definer of Civilization, far more than Sarah Palin, would be the one to play the role.