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Gays and lesbians fight to join Vietnamese Tet parade in Westminster

Performers in the 2011 Tet parade in Westminster.  Controversy is brewing over the current organizer's ban on members of the LGBT community participating as a contingent in the 2014 parade.
Performers in the 2011 Tet parade in Westminster. Controversy is brewing over the current organizer's ban on members of the LGBT community participating as a contingent in the 2014 parade.
Nhat Ton/Flickr Creative Commons

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Hieu Nguyen was caught off guard when organizers of the last Tet parade in Westminster barred him and other Vietnamese-Americans from marching openly as members of the gay community.

But after learning the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California plans to run the parade for a second year in the row — and keep the ban in place — he had a different reaction.

"We're very determined to not be sidelined again," Nguyen said. 

Earlier this year, Nguyen co-founded Viet Rainbow of Orange County. The group is now pressuring parade organizers to include LGBT marchers in its Feb. 2014 march. One tactic is reaching out to its business sponsors. Already, Nguyen said, a bank and a car dealership have told him they plan to pull their sponsorships this year. 

Other organizations are working to build support for Viet Rainbow in and out of Orange County. The Democratic Party of Orange County said it passed a resolution urging public officials to sit out the parade.

Meanwhile, GLAAD, formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, has offered its services to Viet Rainbow.

"It is always worth noting how much the broader culture supports the inclusion of all people in celebrations like the Tet parade," said Ross Murray of GLAAD. 

Neil Nguyen, the spokesman for the parade organizers, did not respond to KPCC's requests for comment.

Tet is the celebration of the Lunar New Year, and for decades, the Westminster parade has been a big draw for Southern California's Vietnamese-American community. (A separate Tet festival has traditionally been held in neighboring Garden Grove, although next year's location is changing.)

In recent years, the city funded the parade, but because of a budget shortfall, officials turned over the operation of the 2013 event to an outside group. Gay and lesbians, who've participated in the parade the last several years, were suddenly shut out by the new organizers, whom Nguyen said, include older and religious immigrants who see homosexuality as a Western disease.

Little appears to be standing in the way of the Vietnamese-American Federation from again putting on a parade as it sees fit.

The city says the group is the sole applicant at this time. Also, legal precedent is on the group's side.

Its attorneys successfully fought a bid to force the parade organizers to include a gay rights contingent in this year's event. The lawyers pointed out that organizers have a First Amendment right to exclude whomever they want from a private event. The same argument was made by organizers of St. Patrick's Day parades in Boston and New York. 

An inter-department correspondence from the assistant city attorney Christian Bettenhausen says because the parade organizer is a private organization, there is "nothing the city can do" to force them to include a particular group.

Bettenhausen added that LGBT individuals could choose to hold their own parade on a different day.

"...And they could choose to exclude the TET parade organizers from that parade if they wanted.  It is their choice.  The First Amendment protects a parade organizer's ability to decide what message they want to convey with their parade."

Neither assistant attorney Bettenhausen or the city manager Eddie Manfro responded to requests for comment.

Hieu Nguyen said holding a separate event is exactly what the parade's organizers suggested they do.

"One of the ideas was for us to march in front of the parade by 30 minutes or behind the parade by 30 minutes," Nguyen said. 

Nguyen said another of the group's ideas was for the LGBT members to march with other organizations, but be prevented from carrying any item that would identify them as being out, such as a rainbow flags.

"We're not going to be part of a legacy that tells the younger generation, the next generation, and even the current generation that it's OK to be separate-but-equal, that being invisible is OK," Nugyen said.

A hearing on the Vietnamese American Federation's permit application is scheduled for Dec. 11.