Two shoeshine boys working on a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Experts have called for more actions to support LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) street children.
Years ago, Yen’s father kicked her out of the house.
The transgender, who refused to give her real name, said she has struggled to survive on the street ever since.
“My father told me ‘If you can manage, just go. Once you’re gone, never ever come back!’” she told a team of researchers at the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE).
“Anyhow he’s still my father. Whenever I have money I bring him some. Usually I don’t stay long, only 5 or 10 minutes then leave,” Yen said, refusing to discuss how she earned her living.
Yen was among 25 LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) street children who agreed to speak to the iSEE team as part of a study which will be published later this month.
Le Quang Binh, director of the iSEE, said LGBT street children constitute a particularly vulnerable group that often goes ignored by mainstream society.
“Street children face threats of hunger, drug addiction, health problems and physical and mental violence,” he said. “But these threats are multiplied for LGBT children.”
Beating at home, bullying at school
The “Situation Assessment of LGBT Street Children in Ho Chi Minh City” was commissioned by the Save the Children in Vietnam. Researchers from iSEE compiled the findings from in-depth interviews with the children, their families and peers.
Many of those interviewed told the same story.
“My father beat me, saying: I won’t accept a homo in my house,” the report quotes a gay male respondent as saying. “You were born a real boy, I cared for you like the rest of my children, why do you do this to me?”
A transgender subject recalled a childhood that consisted of constant torment: “Day in and day out my parents bugged me about my gender problem. They scolded me, saying they could not accept a son like this. They said: ‘you’re something else, you’re not a human being.’ They insulted me everyday, it was terrible.”
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Binh said these children often become worried and embarrassed as soon as they become aware of their sexual orientation, due to the repeated reinforcement of heterosexual values.
“Many drop out of school due to bullying from other students,” he said.
A few respondents opted to enroll in vocational schools, where they continued to face discrimination.
“The school manager told me they would only take male or female candidates. As I appeared to be ‘in-between’ he was afraid that I would have problems getting along with other students because he assumed they were mostly homophobes,” one respondent told iSEE.
Family is key
Vietnam offers little help or hope, outside the traditional family support structure, for LGBT street children. Experts say the first step toward helping this demographic is alleviating the social stigma among families.
“The issues of homosexuality, transgenderism, and bisexuality are not new in Vietnam’s history,” said Natalie Newton, a PhD candidate at the University of California. Despite that fact, she said few Vietnamese NGOs and international organizations work to advocate for this demographic.
Newton, who studies the ways in which the global LGBT human rights movement has influenced lesbian community organizing in HCMC, stressed the importance that family support can play in preventing their children from falling into homelessness.
Donn Colby, medical director of the Harvard Medical School’s AIDS Initiative in Vietnam, said LGBT children have found their own community in the city, but they remain poor with no jobs, no income, and no place to sleep at night.
“Social services and support exist for children without homes or families, but they do not understand the special needs of LGBT children and, in the end, treat them no different than the places these children already escaped from,” he said.
“If families understood and accepted their children, including their sexual orientation, then LGBT children would not have to run away from home and live in the street. We need better information and support for families to accept the sexual orientation of their children.”
Despite a widespread association of the demographic with drug use, most of the respondents reported only occasional marijuana use. They had stayed away from hard drugs, like heroin, for fear that it would seriously damage their health. In some cases, the researchers found that fears about the dangers children might face if cast out of the home (e.g. drug use, prostitution) prompted parents to accept their children’s sexual orientation.
The 25 respondents to the forthcoming iSEE study described life on the street as dangerous on many fronts.
Binh said that young transgenders are often viewed as members of a dangerous subculture or “social evil.”
“Actually, they themselves are the victims of social evils and insecurity,” he said. “The police and militiamen, who are supposed to protect them, also consider them a social threat rather than vulnerable people.”
According to the iSEE study, most of the respondents were engaged in the sex trade; several suffered from HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
“Hazards existed at all times and a teenage (lesbian) told us she had been tested HIV positive and was pregnant at the time of the interview,” according to the study.
Nearly all participants feared the police or civil defense forces.
Twenty one respondents said they had been taken to a civil-defense post, eight said they had been taken to police precincts and two participants said they had been brought to a transit station to be sent to re-education or social service centers.
The study found that the police often believe these downtrodden street LGBT children are dangerous and should be handed over to state-run social welfare centers which provide shelter and other basic necessities.
“It’s all very clear,” a militiaman told the researchers. “Boys and girls sitting and talking at night is one thing. But two boys embracing each other, murmuring and kissing, what is it then if not evil?”