‘It’s kind-of like getting ready for a first date,’ says Mel. We’re both leaning into the bathroom mirror in our stylish new digs, The Ann Hanoi, rumpling our hair, preparing to meet Thư from iSEE.
Thư has chosen Tadioto for our meeting, a stylish cocktail bar in Tông Đản, Tràng Tiền. Entering through velvet drapes, we’re met by a friend and former colleague of Thư’s, who recognises us instantly and shows us to Thư’s table. We introduce ourselves, bowing and handing over business cards. Maybe Thư is as nervous as we are, but we’re saved from formulating our first question by the cocktail list. This is a good ice-breaker; Sarah sticks with her usual dry martini (they serve them with olives here, no silly citrus twists) and Mel braves the Long Island Iced Tea.
Drinks ordered, we launch in, giving our background: Sarah as the former conductor of Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir, the choir’s 2014 tour to Riga, and meeting Edyta, the Polish GP with a lesbian daughter. It’s a story that never ceases to inspire, and is woven with anecdotes of raising awareness and media interest in Riga, the work of Kaspars and Mozaika there, and our first Pacific Pride Choir tour in 2017. This resonates with Thư and the work of iSEE, and in particular the diversity advocacy which they do.
iSEE describes itself as a science and technology organization. It works towards the rights of minority groups in Vietnamese society through research, policy advocacy, conferences and events, and youth and minority initiatives. It’s a perfect fit for us: according to their website, ‘iSEE envisions a more equal, tolerant and free society in which everyone’s human rights are respected and individuality valued’.
We particularly like this part of their mission statement: ‘iSEE celebrates diversity and its promise of a more colourful and vibrant life. Through its works, iSEE promotes plurality and the ending of discrimination against minority groups, especially ethnic minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.’
Thư (Le Phan Anh Thư) is one of two iSEE employees working in the LGBTQI+ program. She tells us there are 14 employees all up, working across LBTQI+ issues, for ethnic minorities, and improving civil society. Part-way through the night, Thư’s friend and colleague Huong joins us. She’s just returned from Myanmar; both women are as surprised as we were to learn of &Proud, Myanmar’s first LGBTQI+ choir.
Inevitably, the question of human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of thought arises. Again, these are universal issues. iSEE has had two major successes in the past three years: getting same sex marriage decriminalised (although it’s still not recognised), and providing protections for trans* people under the law. We discuss Australia’s same-sex marriage debate, the role that religious institutions played, and how different groups interpret their rights. We also compare our two countries’ laws for trans* people, which at this point in time, don’t seem to be all that different.
A number of iSEE’s programs have been funded through assistance from foreign embassies, particularly the American Embassy. That funding is coming to an end, however, and iSEE now needs to raise funds to further its work. This, Thư says, is where Pacific Pride Choir could be useful: as part of a high profile fundraising concert. Vietnam doesn’t have a culture of philanthropy; according to Thư, that will need to change. Our concert could also be the launchpad of something which really excites us - Vietnam’s first LGBTQI+ choir. iSEE could support this, says Thư. She is keen to hear about our choir and its open-door policy - this is what she wants for Hanoi, a diversity choir which is fully inclusive.
Everywhere we go, it seems, Pacific Pride Choir needs to take a different role, and play a different part in the local LGBTQI+ scene. We’re so glad we made this trip. Now the pressure is on for us to make it work. Bringing PPC to Hanoi has the potential to be a catalyst for change in this crazy-beautiful city. No doubt the change would still happen without us. But with us, Thư says there’ll be more momentum, both for a choir and for fundraising.
Come on, PPCers, we need you.
The evening ends in a cloud of mutual inspiration, admiration, and determination - although part of the admiration is for the fab oil painting depicting famous Vietnamese actor Ngo Thanh Van (Tadioto is full of great art). She’s a babe, and the helpful barman takes a photo of us in front of her portrait. If we could read the name of the artist, we’d tell you. But you’ll just have to visit Tadioto and check it out for yourself.
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Mel & Sarah
Currently blogging from home, in iso like everyone else, and catching up with PPC19 in the form of a daily photojournal.