Discriminated, insulted, but Vietnam transsexuals see signs of change

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For long living in limbo, the LGBT community is actively trying to influence parliament into discussing same-sex marriage at a session this week

Two same-sex couples kiss during their public wedding at a public lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) event in Hanoi October 27. Several hundred people attended the event to call for legalization of same-sex marriages, which will be discussed at the National Assembly next week. PHOTO: REUTERS

Jessica managed to open a beauty salon after years of being unable to get a decent job due to the widespread discrimination against transsexuals in Vietnamese society.

"I decided to live with my own gender identity and wanted everyone to recognize me as a woman. But many people are afraid or stay away from us when knowing that our biological gender is different to the appearance," the 28-year-old Ho Chi Minh City-based transsexual says.

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She washed dishes at eateries for little money.

"They would insult me when I applied for a job," she says.

She says she was often told: "Pe de (pejorative for gays and transsexuals) like you are all thieves or something like that! How can you change brides' clothes when you are half of this and half of that?"

After years of saving she managed to open a small beauty salon, which now employs mostly transsexuals like herself.

But success stories like hers are scarce in Vietnam, where many transsexuals are jobless and forced into poverty due to persistent social discrimination.

Cat Thy says she and some other transsexuals formed a group to perform [music and circus tricks] at funerals, weddings, and other family events.

"But people look down on us. Some put money into my blouse and press my breast like it is a teddy bear," she says with a sigh.

Besides putting up with the insults, they also have to watch out for the police, she says, since it is illegal to perform in public without a license.

"We are afraid of the police. They say we don't have a performing license."

Licenses are only issued to graduates of performing-arts schools, and she says transsexuals are not accepted at any of the schools.

"But we just perform for a small group of people, not on a stage."

When the police catch them performing in public, they are chased away or fined, she adds.

Another transsexual, who wished to remain anonymous, says: "Transsexuals like us have two job options - singing at funerals and working as prostitutes." 

On society's fringes

Pham Quynh Phuong, a researcher at the NGO Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), said most transsexuals face social bias and difficulties in obtaining jobs once they come out and reveal their real gender identity.

"Living with their real gender is the biggest desire for a transgender person. But most of them choose to conceal it fear discrimination."

Vietnam has 1.65 million lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) people, including 3 percent of the population aged from 15 to 59, according to iSEE.

Last week iSEE released a study of transgender people which said getting jobs is very difficult for them.

"When I applied for a job at a stationary shop, they said straightaway that they do not hire pe de," the study, which polled 241 transsexuals in HCMC, Hanoi, and several provinces, quoted an unnamed respondent as saying.

"Other places refused in a more polite manner. They would be in urgent need but say they found enough employees."

Tran Phong, a transsexual in HCMC, says she was hurt many times when applying for a job.

"They would keep shaking their head and say, "˜Go away! Here we don't hire pe de. What can a weak person like you do?'"

Besides, more than a fifth of transsexuals who used to have good jobs quit due to discrimination in the community and at the workplace, according to the study.

It said some common problems that transsexuals suffer at the workplace include being ordered to change their appearance, lower income and poorer working conditions than for other people in the same position, discrimination by colleagues, and sexual abuse.

While many transgender people are forced to work as prostitutes or sing at funerals, some prefer to keep away from society and do some low-paying jobs from home.

A 20-year-old respondent said she washes hair for neighbors for VND20,000 (US$0.95).

"But there are few customers; sometimes there is none for a month," she said.

More than half of the respondents said they are unsatisfied with their current jobs because of low and unstable income.

New hope

Though the discrimination continues, the LGBT community in Vietnam has become more active in fighting for its rights.

It has organized a series of activities in the past two years to persuade lawmakers to approve same-sex marriages.

At the ongoing session (October 21-November 30), the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, is expected to discuss the issue while amending the Marriage and Family Law.

On October 27 more than 2,000 people gathered in Hanoi for "I do," an event in support of LGBT.

Organized by iSEE and another NGO, Information Connecting and Sharing (ICS), the event saw a gay and lesbian couple each marry on stage, speak about their difficulties, and hope there would be no more discrimination in society.

Luong The Huy, an organizer, said the timing of the event to coincide with the parliament session would help influence the house discussion on same-sex marriages.

"Support from many constituents is expected to make many lawmakers consider amendments," he said.

Gay Pride events have been held in Hanoi and HCMC since 2012 to demand greater rights for LGBT people.

It looks like the efforts are having an effect. Recently a psychologist who called gay relationships a "disease" which can be cured attracted the ire of experts and the general populace who panned her in online forums.

Nguyen Thanh My, chairwoman of Uoc Mo Xanh Company, while speaking in HCMC's Tran Phu High School, had said: "The phenomenon of same-sex relationship is growing. It is a mental and not biological disease and can be treated."

Some students posted tapes of her speech online.

Manh Hai, a researcher at iSEE, said the strong response from society against My was an "interesting milestone."

"Some years ago such negative, wrong, and biased speech would have faced no criticism.

"The LGBT community was silent, avoiding the issue or even being concerned about their "˜abnormality'," he said.

"But that time is over."

Homosexuals understand who they are and that they have the same rights as others, he said.

"The genie is out of the bottle! And changes will come sooner or later."

Jessica, the HCMC transgender, said since there has been no change in the laws she is ashamed but forced to use a male name.

"Give us a way out. No one wants to hide themselves here or there, doing illegal jobs. Everyone wants to have a stable job."

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