Vu Lam lounges with some friends at Lily's Bakery in Westminister, where feelings on Tet parade marchers were mixed

Vu Lam, relaxing with friends at Lily's Bakery in Westminster's Lilttle Saigon, says he thinks it's acceptable for LGBT individuals to march in the upcoming Lunar New Year parade as long as there are no public displays of affection. (Cheryl Guerrero, Los Angeles Times / January 14, 2014)

Down at Lily's Bakery, the talk among those hunched over their beignets and iced coffee is focused on the upcoming Lunar New Year parade.

The much-anticipated Feb. 1 procession, filled with lion dancers and dignitaries waving from passing cars, winds through Little Saigon as firecrackers pop and the old flag of South Vietnam flutters.

The pressing question now is if a rainbow flag will be added to the colorful mix.

After firm resistance, organizers of the Tet parade, along with other groups called to a community assembly, relented, agreeing to let a troop of Vietnamese American LGBT activists march. Whether they can carry the distinctive symbol for gay pride is another matter.

The issue has divided the immigrant community.

Just down the main boulevard that slices through town, a transgender teen was crowned homecoming queen. A few miles in the other direction, county supervisors set aside a day to honor slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk. But in Little Saigon, change has been slow to arrive.

"On some streets — in Santa Monica or San Francisco — there may be more openness," says Thanh Le, gesturing toward Bolsa Avenue outside the bakery. "Not on this street.

"In honesty, welcoming everyone is OK, but we also have to keep our tradition," says Le, a singer from Westminster.

Others said the decision to let the gay activists march is overdue and a clear sign that attitudes here are finally shifting.

"It had to happen — the issue of gay rights has gone too far, too big for even Little Saigon to ignore," says Henry Lai, a tax analyst from Texas visiting family in Southern California. "Look what 2013 brought — all the states where gay marriage can take place, all the newspaper stories. We must move forward rather than go backward."

Hoa Truong, a secretary from Santa Ana who popped in to buy a birthday cake, was quickly caught up in the conversation.

"I feel the people who call themselves community leaders could not carry on. Keeping one group out of a Lunar New Year activity has led to so much coverage," Truong said. "Even the media in Washington and France has focused on it."

The parade's code of conduct, however, could prevent members of Viet Rainbow of Orange County from carrying the gay pride banner or wearing clothing that identifies them as being associated with the activist organization. Only the U.S. and the South Vietnamese flags are permitted to be carried by participants.

"But the rainbow flag helps to define who we are," said Hieu Nguyen, founder of Viet Rainbow of Orange County, the group that fought and won the right to march. "We are proud to identify with it."

Last year, the group was barred from marching but protested by standing on the sidewalk along the parade route, waving signs and the rainbow flag. Several politicians made a point of stepping away from the parade and joining them.

This year was heading toward a repeat after organizers again told the group it wasn't welcome. But political pressure and the specter of losing sponsors helped turn the tide, and community members voted to let Viet Rainbow participate.

"We don't know who will support us more or less after the vote, but this is a chance to share our culture and to welcome everyone," said Nghia X. Nguyen, the organizer of the parade, which is staged by the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California.

He said that the code of conduct — which also bars makeup, nontraditional costumes and "gestures" — is not aimed at the gay rights group.

"They think that this code is targeting them, but that's not true," Nghia X. Nguyen said. "We don't want any misunderstanding that there is discrimination. There is no discrimination."

Hieu Nguyen said the group has asked whether it can carry the flag but has not received an answer. Regardless of the outcome, he said, the group will march.

"Apart from the rainbow flags, we want to wear our T-shirts," he said. "We want to show clearly that we represent not just Viet Rainbow but also parents of Viet Rainbow children and Viet youths who are LGBTs."

Lai, the visitor from Texas, said he takes satisfaction that the two sides have even come this far.

"OK, so it took this long," he said, unwrapping a banh mi. "We're still behind the mainstream when it comes to freedom of expression. But it's a small, significant step."

Vu Lam, chatting with his buddies at the bakery's entrance, said he had reservations.

"Two guys hand in hand, walking past the elderly Vietnamese, I personally don't favor that and they may not be able to accept that," said Lam, a board member with a nonprofit that stages fundraising concerts to help displaced people around the world.

Hoa Truong, the Santa Ana secretary, said she would have no problem if LGBT marchers were to embrace or even kiss as they march.

"I will yell the loudest for the youths," she said. "They need to immerse themselves to really understand how the community works so they might carry on the culture and show compassion."

anh.do@latimes.com