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Vănguard: Giving a Voice to Saigon’s LGBT Artists

The launch of Vănguard’s second issue last week followed the slow but swelling wave of support for LGBT rights in Vietnam.

Artwork by Kim Cỏ.

This issue of the Saigon-based LGBT zine comes only one month after ASEAN Pride — the country’s first large-scale government-approved LGBT event — and the decriminalization of same-sex marriages in Vietnam.

This is not to say that such changes have been swift or that concerns surrounding LGBT issues have been fully resolved. But in an interesting twist, reports put out by USAID and an unlikely ally — Vietnamese state-run media — have sought to provide accurate information about Vietnam’s LGBT community. Although the media has been (carefully) attempting to foster a deeper understanding of this group, particularly regarding health and social matters, what is still missing is a realistic look at local LGBT people.

The self-produced Vănguard is a rare endeavour that can surely add new voices to this understanding by including a specific segment of the LGBT community: artists.

“The main goal is to provide a platform for LGBT artists who make art that is not accepted here in Vietnam at the moment. There are already people that have been making good quality works but there is not an outlet for them, and that is why most of them are ‘new’,” explained Aiden, one of the founders, who is originally from New York but is now based in the southern Vietnamese metropolis.

In the past, there have been a few other attempts to bring LGBT arts and the LGBT community closer, such as the art festival Queer Forever!. This is not a surprise considering how difficult it is for any artist to have their works approved, even more so when it revolves around realities that draw little empathy from Vietnamese society, “I also think that a lot of artists in Vietnam are asked to do work that is very commercial in order to make a living. We want artists to make pieces that express their individuality,” said Aiden.

Artwork by Nam Núm.

Artwork by Công Thành.

“We also find that Vietnamese people’s view of the LGBT community is very stereotypical: we dress in eccentric clothes, we are infected with diseases and we spend our lives partying. We hope to contribute to changing people’s mind-set.”

The second issue of Vănguard features 10 artists — illustrators, visual artists and writers — and includes photographs, drawings, short stories and poetry.

Written work by Anh Trần.

“For me personally, Vănguard seems to be the first publication that channels the written creativity of LGBTs among other gay magazines filled with models sporting ripped abs and lists of sex tips. Written works, regardless of styles and muses, are encouraged in Vănguard in order to acknowledge and promote the value of art and reading among image-filled media nowadays. That is how Aiden came up with a brilliant name for the zine — 'Văn' in Vănguard means literature in Vietnamese, and it is the first queer zine, or probably the first ever in Saigon, advocating artistic writing,” stated Dang, who helped create the zine.

“I have a special connection with Vietnam because back in New York I do not know any Vietnamese people. So, when I came back here, I found people that understand me because we have the same roots. Vietnam is developing and I want to be part of this transition, like it happened in the 70s and 80s in the States,” said Aiden when asked how he and his friend Nu (also from New York) decided to make a zine in Saigon.  

Aside for the transgression of the subject matter, the content of Vănguard does not tread the same shocking and political paths that could be found in the punk American zines of the 70s. “My written pieces revolve around the silent, premonitory destruction of time, unrequited love, casual sex's aftertaste and solitude, or just simply my feelings after reading a good book. Written content in Vănguard does not necessarily have a story line. It is simply to embrace writing and reading,” explained Dang. 

Written work by Phước Thái.

A testament perhaps to the fact that their intention is indeed to allow LGBT artists to freely express their creativity and to carve out a space within the arts and hopefully the community, “we welcome everyone to join us and to share their thoughts but we still want to feature gay and lesbian artists since they do not have many other outlets to show their works,” concluded Aiden.

Vănguard can be found here.

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