Franky Nguyen went cold at the sight of a body covered in a white sheet being wheeled out of the Thai operating room she'd soon enter on a stretcher.
“I'd been listening to the sounds of scalpels and scissors, terrified cries from the patient and a nurse shouting and slapping the patient’s face to calm him down,” said the 26-year-old transgender in Ho Chi Minh City.
In a recent interview the popular fashion designer shared the story of her torturous journey towards realizing her true gender identity.
“The quiet patients all knew they might be the next body, or the person sitting next to them,” she said.
Despite her fears, Nguyen pressed ahead with the risky surgery, which was just one of many she undertook in order to reassign her gender.
“I would not complain if anything happened to me. Also, my family could not sue because I had signed a contract to accept the fatal risk.”
The major surgery
Nguyen said she wasn't properly anesthetized during a prolonged surgery that altered the state of her genitals.
“I'll never forget the horrible sounds the doctors made while working on my body for eight hours as I lay half-conscious on the operating table,” she said.
Franky said doctors grafted skin from her penis to make an artificial vagina.
“The quiet patients all knew they might be the next body, or the person sitting next to them,” --Transgender designer Franky Nguyen.
After the surgery, even small movements became excruciating. Many patients cried, constantly. We encouraged each others to overcome it,” she said.
Doctors warned of the risk of complications and even death related to the surgery.
During her treatment in Thailand, Nguyen saw another Vietnamese transgender die several days after the surgery.
“His mother took him from Hanoi to Thailand for the gender reassignment surgery. He was taken to a nearby hotel after the surgery and soon afterward, an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital where doctors couldn't stop the bleeding and he died.”
The mother and son, who didn't have much money, didn't hire a nurse and did not follow the recommended diet because they couldn't speak English.
Franky spent more than VND100 million (US$4,700) on that procedure. She has submitted to more than 10 surgeries to become a woman.
In order to maintain a vaginal implant, transexuals have to stretch it with wooden sticks after the surgery, Nguyen said.
“It is a thousand time more painful than the main surgery. It’s like rubbing an open wound.”
The second surgery most transsexuals seek are breast implants, most of which are performed in Vietnam for around VND60 million.
Franky Nguyen recovering at a clinic in Thailand after her gender reassignment surgery. Photo courtesy Franky Nguyen
Franky admitted that she underwent breast enhancement surgery twice after the first failed to yield the desired result.
Cat Thy, a transgender singer in HCMC, said a man once squeezed her newly implanted breast and she was hospitalized for three days with severe pain.
Most report lacking full sensation during sex since gender reassignment surgeries greatly reduce the number of nerve endings in one's genitals.
Apart from surgeries to create vaginas and breasts, most transgender people undergo other cosmetic surgeries to get rid of their male features.
Transgender people are advised to take hormones for life to maintain their female appearance, which can carry a high cost--including insomnia, elevated heartbeat, stress and even a shorter life.
Nguyen said two German hormone doses sell in Thailand for VND400,000, but the price increases significantly when they are imported to Vietnam.
“Many transgender people use cheap hormones that create a lot of complications and can even be fatal.”
|Franky Nguyen grew up in a household that ran a fashion shop and became a successful fashion designer before undergoing gender reassignment surgery.
Many transgender Vietnamese aren't so lucky.
Nguyen Ly Hien Nga of the NGO Save the Children said street children who are LGBT (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender) are frequently jobless, lack identity papers, accommodation and education.
Adult transgenders in Vietnam have reported difficulty obtaining work, forcing some to seek employment as illegal sex workers.
At a recent forum on LGBT rights, transgender singer Cindy Thai Tai said she was hesitant to apply for a national identification card because she did not want her gender defined as male.
“However, many transsexuals face difficulties because they are females whose sexuality is listed as males on their ID cards,” she said.
Transgender model Lan Phuong said she has always been questioned whenever applying for a job or doing any paperwork.
“We have suffered through painful surgeries to realize our actual sexual identity. We only wish the society would accept us as women with female ID cards and stop this discrimination,” she said.