Silhouettes on stands line one wall of Hanoi’s first-ever LGBT museum exhibition. Their darkly outlined bodies twist in agony or stand defiantly, filled with symbolic items each artist chose to draw: shackles around the ankles, cascading pills, stick figures holding hands.
These images are among the first seen on a visit to The Cabinet, an NGO-sponsored, government-approved exhibition that tells the stories of more than 70 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Vietnam.
Full of donated everyday items, letters, clothes and photos, each exhibit represents a memory or embodies an experience. Hugging figurine salt-shakers and ao dai share space with hormone pills and a slashed teddy bear.
Coloured placards placed in front of each display represent one of four themes: red for ‘identity’, blue for ‘sorrow’, yellow for ‘pride’ and green for ‘sharing’. A drawer in each exhibit’s stand opens to reveal the accompanying text. Recorded interviews, short documentaries and interactive iPads allow visitors to explore the exhibit further.
“For the design [of the exhibition] we talked about coming out of the closet, about what LGBT people today want, feel and have,” says Pham Khanh Binh, a programme assistant for LGBT issues for iSEE, one of the organisations that collaborated on the exhibit.
A Long Journey
The Cabinet ran until Mar. 31, but its journey began in 2009 when curator Dinh Thi Nhung started collecting objects for an archiving project with the Centre for Creative Initiative in Health and Population. The Unstraight Museum in Stockholm and the Swedish Institute stepped in, and they worked together for years to make the exhibition happen.
“I think we wanted to tell the differences between LGBT experiences and straight ones, but also the similarities,” says Nhung. “Telling something so personal is difficult for everyone. I want people, when they read, to see themselves in the stories.”
Being gay goes against the roles carved out for most young people in Vietnam, and no parent wants to see their child grow up ‘abnormal’ and ‘unhappy’, says Pham Huy Thai, a 19-year-old Hanoi University of Science student who visited The Cabinet. The stories show that parents’ intentions, while they could be good, hurt LGBT youth in the long term.
“They cannot live for themselves,” Thai says.
One silhouette figure’s brain holds a cage surrounded by ivy. In the cage the word “tam than,” or “insane,” is written. The figure belongs to Tieu Nhat, born in 1991, whose family took him to a psychiatric centre when they discovered his orientation.
“Only when Nhat… promised not to love men anymore was he allowed to go back to school,” the placard under the silhouette reads.
While Tieu Nhat’s figure was allowed to be part of the exhibition, some objects were deemed too sensitive to display — like a razor blade, needles used for silicone injections and a marriage certificate with two women’s names.
In response, empty stands and display cases are scattered across The Cabinet — subtle reminders of just how far LGBT rights have to go in Vietnam.
One glass case in the centre of the exhibition holds a collection of ornate jewellery lent by Hao Vu, 30, a doctor and medium who lives in Hanoi. The antique earrings and strings of beads belonged to Vu’s uncle, a medium under the Dao Mau (Mother Goddess) religion.
Vu’s uncle was a “dong co,” or “effeminate medium,” and Vu inherited his abilities. In Dao Mau, men can be possessed by goddesses for certain rituals that require wearing feminine clothing and makeup.
“It was a taboo topic in my family — no one wanted to talk about my uncle, and they even prevented their kids from going to see him,” says Vu.
It was acceptable for Vu’s uncle to represent female spirits, but he lived his personal life underground, in loneliness.
Dao Mau is an essential part of Vietnamese history, Vu says. It was a bold move to include it in the exhibition, because it shows that some of the country’s ancient traditions were accepting of LGBT.
“Let society see that we are not sickos, we are just normal,” he says. “But we cannot achieve that yet. A lot of organisations have to stand together and make it happen.” — Annalise Frank
The Vietnam University of Fine Arts is at 42 Yet Kieu, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi