A little known historical detail is that, although homophobic Vietnamese say that homosexuality is a Western disease, it was Westerners who first said that homosexuality was a Vietnamese disease, specifically during French colonialism of Vietnam. The term “pe-de” (often pronounced “bey-dey” in Vietnamese) is a derogatory slang term for “faggot.” Sometimes it also used as a catch-all term for all LGBTs. Pê-đê in Vietnamese is derived from the French term “pederast,” meaning an adult male who likes to have sex with pubescent boys. The same term “pé-dé” in French is also still used as derogatory slang with the same connotation as Vietnamese.
Anthropologist Frank Proschan (2002) writes about the ways in which French colonial officials, medical doctors, travelers, and missionaries during the late 1800s claimed that Vietnamese opium dens in Saigon were ‘infecting’ Frenchmen with syphillis through pederasty and prostitution. Frenchmen claimed that Vietnamese women were so ugly with blackened teeth from betel nut chewing that this ‘forced’ colonials into engaging in homosexuality under the influence of opium. French surgeon who wrote using the pseudonym “Dr. Jacobus X” recorded the most detailed compendeum of Vietnamese gender and sexuality on record during the French colonial period, where he claimed that pederasty and sodomy ‘became part of the manners of the Annamite people long before the conquest by the French’ (Proschan 2002:618-9).
Homosexuality is seen as a racial threat in contradictory ways, on the one hand by the French, who tried to conquer and divide the Vietnamese people through their medicalized homophobia and treatment of syphillis in opium dens, and by Vietnamese, who cling falsely to an idea of heterosexual purity of the race.
- Proschan, F. (2002) ‘“Syphillis, opiomania, and pederasty”: Colonial constructions of Vietnamese (and French) social diseases.’ Journal of the History of Sexuality. 11(4):610-636.