Vietnam gay sitcom becomes Internet smash
Huynh Nguyen Dang Khoa, creator and star of Vietnam's first gay sitcom, in an undated handout picture received on April 22, 2013. The show has become a YouTube sensation, racking up millions of views as support for legalising same-sex marriage strengthens within the communist government.
Homosexuality was once seen as a social evil in Vietnam and the success of "My Best Gay Friends", a low-budget series about three people sharing an apartment in southern Ho Chi Minh City, has taken even its creator by surprise.
"I thought it would only interest Vietnam's gay community -- but we're hearing that parents, grandparents, whole families watch and love the shows and long for new episodes," Huynh Nguyen Dang Khoa, who also stars in the series, told AFP.
From moving out of home to work and relationship trouble, the series details life as a typical perpetually-broke twenty-something in Vietnam -- but the characters are mostly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Khoa decided to make the show after hearing about the weird but often very amusing situations faced by a close friend -- who also stars in the sitcom -- as he came out and began living an openly gay life in Vietnam.
"We didn't have much money so everyone chipped in -- we had a little cash to cover equipment, and buying food for when we were shooting all day," said Khoa, who used his own digital SLR camera to shoot the whole series.
Most of the characters are played by Khoa's friends -- both gay and straight -- but Cindy Thai Tai, a well-known transgender singer who was one of the first Vietnamese celebrities to have sex-change surgery, also makes an appearance.
"I wanted to show people that homosexuals have ordinary lives, full of emotion, friends, family -- very normal lives," said 22-year-old Khoa, who is himself gay.
While it is not illegal, homosexuality has long been a taboo in Vietnam, where Confucian social mores -- with their emphasis on tradition and family -- still dominate.
But in a surprise move last year the authoritarian government said it was considering legalising same-sex marriage -- a proposal that recently won the support of the Ministry of Health.
"People of the same sex have the right to live... love, find happiness (and) get married," said Deputy Minister of Health Nguyen Viet Tien.
The move would make Vietnam the second country in the Asia Pacific region to legalise such unions after New Zealand.
Some symbolic but non-legally binding same-sex weddings have already been held in Vietnam, with footage of one such event going viral in 2010.
Sociologist Le Quang Binh told AFP that social attitudes towards the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community were changing rapidly in Vietnam at the moment but it was hard to know how much "My Best Gay Friends" had helped.
"We are lobbying the government on (same-sex weddings). I hope good change will come," said Binh, who has worked on numerous research projects on Vietnam's LGBT community.
Even if Vietnam stops short of allowing gay marriage, any legal change to recognise same-sex unions would catapult the country to the forefront of gay rights in Asia, where traditional values dominate many societies and sodomy is illegal in some.
"My Best Gay Friends" tackles the issue in episode nine -- the most recent episode which has already been watched half a million times -- when a lesbian wedding ceremony runs into problems.
"The couple is female! This wedding goes against Vietnamese traditions and customs," the manager of a restaurant says as she forces the wedding party to leave the establishment. "They are violating the law."
When one flamboyant member of the party -- played by Cindy Thai Tai -- protests, asking "so you think that the homosexuals have no rights to love and wed each other lawfully?" the manager quickly explains the establishment has no choice.
"Please madam, local authorities called us and forced us to cancel this wedding. If we go against the order we'll get a serious fine!" the manager adds.
The wedding is quickly moved to an alternative venue and goes ahead -- to the delight of the couple's friends and family present.
The first episode of the low-budget series recently passed the one million views mark and the further eight completed episodes, out of a planned 15, are swiftly accruing hits.
"I feel a lot of sympathy, and admiration, towards the friendship and love they show for each other. I think they live a more beautiful life than ordinary people," read one typical comment from a viewer, posted on YouTube.
In 2011, curious Vietnamese filmgoers streamed into cinemas to catch "Lost in Paradise", which chronicled the doomed love affair between a gay prostitute and a book seller, providing a rare glimpse into a usually hidden side of the country.
Despite the online popularity of "My Best Gay Friends" Khoa said there were no plans to broadcast the series on television as it was "rather sensitive" and did not appeal to networks or their advertisers.
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