He is not me, she is

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Vietnam's transgender artists intrigue, but struggle to find larger social acceptance

Singers Khanh Chi Lam (L) and Huong Giang (R)

Was it a strategic move? Or was it curiosity? Was sympathy and/or curiosity trumping talent? Was this fair on other contestants?

These are questions that seemed to have escaped discussions about transgender artists who seem to make relatively successful comebacks after changing their sex. 

When Huong Giang admitted on stage during the Vietnam Idol contest last year that she had been born a boy, she seemed to win more public support, and was voted into the top four. It was a huge contrast to when she had contested as a male in 2010. Then, he had failed to make it past the first round.

This time around, as a woman, she still failed to dazzle the judges who were critical of her performance, but her looks and story seem to have kept the public interested enough to keep voting for her.

So far all the sex change operations involving artists have been of males becoming females.

The new women have said that their sexual orientation is who they are, that the sex change is part of their artistic desire, that they want to make "sexier" appearances on stage, but are sad that they are criticized for hunting attention.

The Vietnam Idol judges did comment during the first rounds of the contest that Giang's appearance would be one of her key weapons.

It appears that the weapon was considerably sharpened after her admission that her appearance was not something she was born with.

A VnExpress report quoted her as saying on stage: "I love singing very much, and any change I made was for it.

"Everyone has their choice. And I think that when you want to appear on stage in some image, you need to change for it."

Giang said she had always felt like a girl even when she was a boy, and she used her savings from her part-time job to undergo a series of sex-change operations in Thailand.

Her mother, Dinh Thi Hien, told the Gia Dinh & Xa Hoi (Family & Society) newspaper that Giang, born Nguyen Ngoc Hieu, had been soft and gentle since she was little.

"He was playing modeling and singing with his sister and cousins, and I thought he had some love for performing arts. "

Hien said that she had no inkling about her son's sexual orientation in the beginning, but took notice when, as a teenager, he kept engaging in "girly acts" and appearances. She said she regrets now that she concealed her suspicions from her child and did not talk to him and show him her support.

She said Hieu started performing publicly as a student at the Hanoi College of Arts, and when he asked for permission to leave home for several days in February 2011, she thought it was for a show. It was only when one of his friends informed her later that she knew about the sex change operations.

"I regret every time thinking about it. It was the most difficult moment in my child's life and I could not be there."

Giang said her coming out had first drawn public curiosity, but "I feel people have gradually come to accept me as normal and treat me as an artist."

Like Giang, Lam Chi Khanh said she'd always felt like a girl.

The public had known Khanh as a "him" before the singer disappeared from public view in 2007 after a live show named "Abnormal Heart."  He returned to the stage as a female, with a new stage name Khanh Chi Lam in late 2012, 33 years old.

Lam had tested the waters by posting many new images on her Facebook page before opening up at a press briefing in December.

Soon after, her online single drew more public attention than the songs she had sung when she was a male. 

Lam said she has been able to demand higher payments for performances as also be picky about them, something she could not afford to do earlier as a man.

This has happened although her voice has not changed much from that of her male avatar. 

Lam said she did not have any medical intervention for her vocal chords because she wanted to keep her voice.

She just tries to sing "softly and weakly" when possible, Lam said.

She also refrained from having any plastic surgery done on her face. All she had to do was to lose some weight, she said.

"I hope that the public will come to accept me and love me because I have changed (from male to female) to be true to myself, and still be real,"  she told entertainment news website Ngoi Sao.

Big crowds are expected at her upcoming live show this November, in which she will attempt to promote transgender rights. 

She will sing along with five popular male singers amidst ao dai, gown and bikini fashion shows featuring five transgender beauty queens invited from Thailand and around ten female transsexuals from Vietnam.

Lam said it's wrong for people to say that she became a transsexual for fame, "because I did not know what would come after.

"If I knew I would be famous, I would have done it sooner."

She said she had been afraid of losing everything after the sex change. She had agonized over the decision, not having the support of her parents who felt it would affect her health badly. 

She had to save money for four to five years to have the sex change operation in Thailand.

She also told local media about plans for a wedding with her gay boyfriend of eight years, and having a baby by in vitro fertilization. She has already adopted a relative's baby.

Other artists who have achieved renown after changing their sex include singer Hai Nguyen and designer Franky Nguyen. They have moved from relative obscurity to people regularly mentioned in local media reports.

Hai Nguyen has released several music products, and has even switched to a new career as a model for advertisements.

Franky Nguyen said she decided to undergo a sex change because she wanted to wear the clothes that she designs.

Longing for acceptance

As public figures, Giang, Lam and Nguyen might help continue the journey of their predecessors who fought to win public acceptance for transsexuals.

Cindy Thai Tai, a singer who owns a fashion store, was one of the first artists to come clean about her true sexual orientation and to receive surgery for a female body ten years ago.

Cindy said she still remembered the disgusting looks thrown at her during the first days.

She said it's not true that those who undergo sex change operations do it for fame, because such "fame" subjects the person to curiosity, doubt and disgust.

Cindy had become notorious for outfits that exposed too much flesh, but some sympathetic people in the business have said transsexuals are kind of desperate to show the body that they have longed for; to show off their success in being who they want.

While many have described their physical pains during and after the sex change process,

Cindy said it was much more painful to be rejected or not accepted by society.

Vietnam has not officially recognized transgender procedures and personal papers continue to mention one's gender according to birth.

"I am not considered a woman on paper and that affects my married life," she said.

"I don't want my marriage certificate to say it is between man and man," she told news website Dan Tri.

For now, Cindy is a single mother, raising an eight-year-old boy she adopted as an infant.

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