The growing friction between Vietnamese LGBT groups hoping to march in Sunday's Tet parade and resistant organizers of the Lunar New Year event has exposed a deeper cultural struggle over gay rights in Orange County's sprawling immigrant community.
For three years, LGBT activists have participated in the colorful gathering in Little Saigon, but this year — with the event shifting from city sponsorship to private hands — they have been rebuffed and quietly told to make a "sacrifice" and stay away, members said.
The standoff has had a rippling effect in the nation's largest Vietnamese community. Some nonprofits are threatening to pull out of the parade if the gay entries are excluded; a local school district that has provided buses for transportation is refusing to participate; and politicians are weighing the consequences of joining an event that some might suddenly see as intolerant.
At the core, some cultural experts say, is a set of customs drawn from Confucianism, a system of norms and propriety that determines how a person should act in society. Under the belief, one should sacrifice one's life, if necessary, for the sake of upholding morality.
"It sounds so basic, but it's that idea of how families are created, a continuation of culture. Even as people step out and go to college or immerse in the world, adopting a more liberal view of politics, or in this case, sexuality, and they want to show their identity — what they forget is there are still segments of the older generation who grew up with these ideals," said Caroline Kieu Linh Valverde, assistant professor of Asian American studies at UC Davis.
"They cannot let them go," she said.
While much of America has softened its position on gay rights, news about changing attitudes goes largely unmentioned in the Vietnamese media. There are at least a dozen Vietnamese newspapers and magazines, and more than 10 Vietnamese radio and television stations in Little Saigon alone, and many residents still turn to them to catch up on current events.
"The situation is now at a crossroads. All along, people may have had double lives, staying underground. But now, we see LGBT Vietnamese folks wanting to get married, wanting to be public at a parade, and it becomes a battle," Valverde said.
Valverde said there appears to be a trend in the Vietnamese community to turn to the courts to protect themselves and their rights. "They don't need their elders' approval," she said.
On Thursday, the LGBT groups did just that, though they failed to persuade Orange County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Glass to order organizers to let them march. Still, gay rights advocates said they may have won a larger fight in the effort.
"This battle is far from over. We will march with other groups who do not believe in discrimination in this day and age," said Luan Tran, an attorney representing the Partnership for Viet Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Organizations.
"In an ironic way, although they try to marginalize us, they are the ones being marginalized in the court of public opinion," he said.
Some LGBT members are invited to join other entries already approved to march in the parade, including the Union of Vietnamese Student Assns. of Southern California and the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce. Others intend to line Bolsa Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Little Saigon and the designated parade route, and make their presence known with signs thanking supporters.
Dina Nguyen, a lawyer representing the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California, the parade's organizer, picked her words carefully after the court hearing.
"We respect everyone's 1st Amendment rights," she said, adding that "tough decisions" must "be decided by the court."
Tuan Trong Le, co-founder of the Gay Vietnamese Alliance, said: "We will be at the parade to celebrate with our entire Vietnamese family."
Natalie Newton, leader of O-Moi, a member of the Partnership of Viet LGBT Organizations, is among those invited to march with other entries.
"My love for my community is deep. But so is my love for humanity and I want to express who I am," Newton said. "We maintain our commitment to cultural values. We're also loyal to who we are."