A Vietnamese spiritual tradition that respects gender-crossing and homosexual leaders central to the spiritual practices is the Mother Goddess (đạo Mẫu) religion.
One of the oldest in Vietnamese history, the Mother Goddess religion is still practiced today, from temples in Hanoi, Vietnam to San Jose, California. “Đồng cô” are spiritual shamans who are essential to the practices of divine feminine worship in the religion. Đồng cô are usually males who prefer homosexual relationships and attractions with other men. Many đồng cô identify as homosexual or gay. However, some đồng cô do not identify as “gay,” because they feel their gender/sexuality as part of a spiritual cosmology, not just a sexual identity.
Regardless of their sexual identifications, đồng cô shamans cross-dress as women during spiritual rituals that are essential to the practice of healing, calling upon the dead as mediums with the living, and other benevolent worship of the divine feminine within Vietnamese Buddhist lineage of female goddesses. Dồng cô are highly regarded as spiritual leaders and necessary to the the Mother Goddess religion’s manifestation of human connection to the cosmos. Due to their homosexuality and gender-crossing, đồng cô shamans are considered ideal in acting as “in-between” portals between men and women, human and cosmic.
Several scholars debate the necessarily homosexual or transgender identifications of đồng cô male spiritual leaders. They debate these historical and cultural questions on the grounds that feminine attire is essential for males in rituals that honor maternal figures and goddesses featured in the religion (Fjelstad and Nguyen 2011:137), ritual participants are tacitly aware of homosexuality of most đồng cô, but view sexual orientation as unconnected to the divine calling to mediumship or ritual practice (Norton 2006:72), or that lên đồng (“go up”) rituals offer a complex way to fulfill filial and social obligations when a male medium has presumably socially unacceptably high levels of feminine spiritual energy within the Mother Goddess cosmology (Endres 2006:89). Medical doctors Elliot Heiman and Cao Văn Lê, who investigated Vietnamese sexuality in the 1960s and 70s, specifically differentiate between their transsexual subject and đồng cô (see Nguyễn 2007). Contrastingly, Vietnamese popular music singers like Cindy Thái Tài and Cát Tuyền publicly disclose their histories as male-to-female transsexuals, complicating the nationalistic discourses around ‘good womanhood’ in Vietnam.
For an excellent resource, please see the documentary made in 2006, “Love man, love woman
[Ái nam, ái nữ]” by Nguyễn Thị Trinh.
Sources on đồng cô:
- Endres, Kirsten. (2006). “Spirit Performance and the Ritual Construction of Personal Identity in Modern Vietnam.” In Possessed by the Spiris: Mediumship in contemporary Vietnamese communities, edited by Karen Fjelstad and Nguyen Thi Hien. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 77-94.
- Fjelstad, Karen and Nguyen Thi Hien. (2011). Spirits without Borders: Vietnamese Spirit Mediums in a Transnational Age. New York, Palgrave Macmillan.
- Heiman, E. M. and Cao V. L. (1975) “Transsexualism in Vietnam.” Archives of Sexual Behavior. 4(1):89-95.
- Nguyễn, Q.V. (1998) ‘Deviant bodies and dynamics of displacement of homoerotic desire in Vietnamese literature from and about the French colonial period.’ Talawas.org. Online. Available: http://www.talawas.org/talaDB/showFile.php?res=1056&rb=0503
- Nguyễn, T.T. (2007). ‘Ái nam, ái nữ [Love man, love woman].’ Documentary film. Hanoi, Vietnam.
- Norton, Barley. (2006). “‘Hot-tempered’ women and ‘effeminate’ men: The Performance of Music and Gender in Vietnamese Mediumship.” In Possessed by the Spiris: Mediumship in contemporary Vietnamese communities, edited by Karen Fjelstad and Nguyen Thi Hien. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 55-76.