Jessica Goodfellow
Feb 10, 2021

A Vietnam perspective: Culture and working life as an LGBTQIA+ person in the industry

In the fourth iteration of our LGBTQIA+ interview series, we turn our attention to Vietnam, a market that has made some policy progress in recent years, but with discrimination and stigma still common, many to continue to hide their identities.

Hesperus Mak
Hesperus Mak

Hesperus Mak is the head of strategic planning at TBWA Group Vietnam. Born in Hong Kong, Mak has also lived and worked in London and Singapore. He has been based in Vietnam for two and a half years. Mak identifies as a gay man.

The strategist has worked in the advertising industry for nearly 13 years. Prior to TBWA, he was a strategic planner at Publicis in Singapore and Hong Kong. Based on his experience, he views the advertising industry as "generally quite welcoming" to LGBTQIA+ individuals. But he would love to see more LGBTQIA+ individuals feature in advertising, something that is still "very rare".

Having lived and worked across three markets in Asia, he's able to compare his past experiences to that of Vietnam, where he says the LGBTQIA+ scene is "yet to be developed".

Vietnam's position on gender and sexuality rights is not as clear cut as it is in other markets in Asia. A law that came into effect in 2015 permits same-sex marriage, although such couples are neither recognised nor protected under the law. While still unequal, this is more progressive than many markets in Asia, where same-sex relations and expression of transgender identities are criminalised. 

Previously in this series

A Malaysia perspective: Culture and working life as an LGBTQIA+ person in the industry
In this iteration of our series, we turn our attention to Malaysia, where one individual—despite living under repressive laws—has found acceptance and is optimistic about the future of the country's community.

A Japan perspective: Culture and working life as a LGBTQIA+ person in the industry
A Japan-based executive discusses his experience coming out to his coworkers, and aspects of religion and culture that disenfranchise the community.

What's it like working in the industry as an LGBTQIA+ person?
Two Asia-based executives share their experiences Two openly-LGBTQIA+ individuals imagine a future where there is no longer a need to close diversity gaps. But more focus is needed on gender and sexual identity to get there.

But despite some legal progress, Vietnam remains a socially conservative nation, and the community continues to face prejudice, discrimination and stigma. A report published by Human Rights Watch in 2020 found that young people in Vietnam continue to be taught at home and at school that same-sex attraction is a 'disease' and a 'mental illness' that can be cured and treated. The report also found that young LGBTQ+ in Vietnam face verbal harassment, bullying and in some cases physical violence in their schools. As a consequence, many in Vietnam continue to hide their sexuality and gender identity from their families.

Mak is an LGBTQIA+ advocate, and his vision is that one day, every LGBTQIA+ individual gets the love and freedom they deserve.

This interview forms part of an ongoing series focused on the experiences of individuals within the LGBTQIA+ community from different markets in Asia-Pacific. Catch our previous interviews (above) with people in Malaysia, Japan and Thailand. We hope by focusing on a different market each time that the series will, over time, paint a picture of what it is like to live and work as an LGBTQIA+ individual in Asia-Pacific. Because LGBTQIA+ rights in some Asia-Pacific markets are still informed by deeply ingrained cultural beliefs, we expect the responses to be quite different. If you or someone you know would be happy to share their perspective, please get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.

Campaign: What is your experience as an LGBTQIA+ person in the advertising industry?

I don’t really have any experience of being uncomfortable in the advertising/ marketing sector. However in the past when I wasn’t out, I recall a few times my colleagues would joke about being gay and I felt a bit uneasy. But I believe those are harmless and unintentional.

Have your colleagues/company ever made you feel uncomfortable being a LGBTQIA+ in the workplace?

No.

Do you believe the advertising industry to be more or less inclusive than other sectors? Why?

I think it’s generally quite welcoming in the advertising industry. At all the agencies I haved worked at, being LGBTQIA+ is greatly valued. Advertising often requires a more open-minded mindset so that fosters a more inclusive environment.

Is there enough of a focus on LGBTQIA+ in existing diversity frameworks in Asia? We seem to be making progress on gender, but that is only one element of diversity.

Gender is definitely something that comes to people’s minds first when it comes to diversity. I think LGBTQIA+ is slowly catching up in more welcoming countries or international corporations in Asia.

Do you try to find information on a company’s LGBTQIA+ stance before accepting a job offer?

Sometimes. If I see the company or the management is participating in/ advocating LGBTQIA+ initiatives, it will definitely make me more interested in that company.

What is your experience as an LGBTQIA+ person in Vietnam, and how, to your knowledge, do you think this compares to other markets in Asia-Pacific, such as very progressive markets like Taiwan, for example?

Having lived in different countries like Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam, I do see some differences across the markets.

In Hong Kong and Singapore, an LGBTQIA+ person enjoys a more vibrant/diverse lifestyle. For example, you can find LGBTQIA+ networking events for your industry, or a social group specialising in outdoor activities/sports. While in Vietnam there is less opportunity for an LGBTQIA+ person to meet and socialise. It is a scene yet to be developed.

Singapore is an interesting place though. On one hand its Section 377A penal code criminalises sex between consenting male adults, on the other hand there are much more debates and discussions happening in Singapore. There are many grassroot efforts that are contributing to the wellbeing of the LGBTQIA+ community as well.

Do you believe there are certain countries in APAC that are more accepting of the LGBTQIA+ community than others? If so, why? What do you think needs to happen in Vietnam to reach the same standards?

Yes certainly. Multiple factors are in play like legislation, religions, politics etc.

Having said that, in many Asian cultures, family is the number one barrier towards LGBTQIA+ acceptance. Many would choose to be out to their friends and colleagues but remain closeted in the family. The last thing we want is to disappoint our families.

For example in Vietnam, I had a discussion with a local LGBTQIA+ organisation and the director told me that while on the surface people are accepting, an LGBTQIA+ person would encounter under-the-carpet discrimination at home or at work.

There is lots to be done but first we need to normalise being an LGBTQIA+ in Asia. The label of LGBTQIA+ is a deterrent of us being accepted because it makes us different from others. If we can see being a LGBTQIA+ person as just another human being, it would be a great start.

Do you believe your race has played a part in your experience as an LGBTQIA+ person in Vietnam?

Not in Vietnam. But there is research showing ethnic minorities living in the rural areas would encounter bigger discrimination.

When it comes to LGBTQIA+ acceptance more broadly, what progress have you seen being made (for example, more representation in media), and where is there still progress to be made?

Certainly there is more LGBTQIA+ representation in the media and companies are investing in diversity, equity and inclusion agendas.

Speaking of LGBTQIA+ representation, in Asia it is still very behind other Western markets. For example, in some markets, a LGBTQIA+ actor usually takes on the role of a comedian in a TV show. They are the one being made fun of. Or like in Hong Kong, many celebrities are reluctant to come out. This sets a bad example in the culture.

Also it’s very rare to see a LGBTQIA+ individual being featured in advertising. Many companies still see that as a risk. But I believe great storytelling and well-calibrated messaging can alleviate the risk and lead to great results.

What advice would you give businesses looking to create more inclusive environments for people across the LGBTQIA+ community?

Internally, top management of businesses need to get educated about the LGBTQIA+ community. Talk to your LGBTQIA+ to understand what they need and how you can make the work environments more inclusive. Support them to express their full self because this will ultimately help them to work with higher productivity and satisfaction.

Externally, businesses should evaluate how do you engage your LGBTQIA+ consumers. Representation matters. We would want to see that your brand acknowledges our existence, at the very least, and respond to our needs.

Do you think the government or corporations play a bigger role in improving LGBTQIA+ equality in your market and in workplaces?

It may sound controversial but I believe corporations play a bigger role. It’s because legislation is not going to change unless there is a critical mass of people supporting LGBTQIA+ rights.

Corporations can take the first move. Help your LGBTQIA+ staff to be their fullest self. Help them to be confident. Advocate acceptance and empathy. Start acknowledging the LGBTQIA+ community, or maybe even take a stand. It will eventually pay off.

On that note, I am proud to say I would never be who I am and answering this interview if one of my first bosses hadn’t told me that it’s a safe space to be who I am, even before I was out. Now I have the opportunity to pay it forward and contribute to others.

We understand LGBTQIA+ individuals may have different experiences to those described above. We would love to hear from you, wherever you are based. We understand the sensitivities of talking about being LGBTQIA+ in certain markets, so we are happy to run anonymous commentary. Please reach out to the editorial team or share feedback on the website.

 

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