Huynh Chi Dung’s friend, a female whose biological sex was male, died recently in a botched attempt at a breast lift with silicone.
“She called me to visit her that day to witness her injecting silicone. But I came only to shroud her,” said the 30-year-old transgender woman from Ben Tre Province.
Dung and the LGBT community in Vietnam are seeking legal recognition for themselves as lawmakers are set to discuss amendments to the Civil Code in May.
“Transgender people, who are already suffering from discrimination, should at least have the right to live with their gender identity, have sex reassignment surgery in Vietnam and change their name and gender in identity papers,” she said.
Dung herself has attempted to commit suicide several times due to discrimination in the family and school and at the workplace.
“When queuing to go into class, neither boys nor girls would allow me in their line. They used to strip off my pants, tie me to a chair and beat me just because I was different from them.”
According to the Ministry of Health, around 500,000 people in Vietnam have gender identities different from their birth gender.
Some 1,000 have had gender reassignment surgeries, including at illegal clinics.
Struggling with gender
Dung returned to Ben Tre two years ago after eight years in Ho Chi Minh City working as a dancer.
“I used to face harsh discrimination. They would boycott me saying a pe de [a pejorative for transgender people] like me would make the dance dirty.”
She even faced discrimination at a café where the owner said, “This café has never had people like you; don’t come again.”
In Ben Tre, Dung has formed a group of transgender people who perform at weddings and funerals for a living, but again faces discrimination.
And through her friends, she learned about the deaths of many transgender people while injecting silicone themselves.
“Why does Vietnam have no medical services for transgender people?” she asked.
Huynh Minh Thao, a transgender man and member of ICS, a HCMC-based network of LGBT people, said many transgender people having surgeries abroad, mostly Thailand, face difficulties right at the airport when returning because of their different appearance.
“That does not include the many difficulties in their daily life due to the contradiction between their appearance and registered gender in identity papers.”
According to a recent survey by the Hanoi-based Institute for Studies of Society, Economics and Environment (iSEE), more than 86 percent of transgender people want to change their names but without the need to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
More than 78 percent of them want to get gender reassignment surgery and at least 11 percent have had at least one surgery, according to a survey of 219 transgender people.
Ray of hope
In mid-2014 lawmakers agreed to lift the ban on same-sex marriages, which was seen as a positive move, though LGBT people remained outside the pale of the law.
A transgender woman holds a board that reads: "I want medical services, more policies for transgender people." Photo: Minh Hung
However, LGBT people are very hopeful of further changes as an amendment to the Civil Code to be discussed by lawmakers at the upcoming session in May proposes that “under special circumstances gender reassignment shall be allowed by authorized agencies.”
Nguyen Huy Quang, director of the Ministry of Health’s Legal Department, said he favors the amendment because “it’s an issue of living with real gender identity.”
Currently, 20 of 200 countries and territories worldwide recognize transgender people, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Thailand in Asia.
More to do
Unhappy with the proposal, Manh Hai, a researcher at iSEE, said the amendment would not effect a breakthrough in protecting LGBT rights since the stipulation “special circumstances” is too vague.
“There are many reasons for this, mostly the fear that gender reassignment is unnatural and people would rush to do it, leading to harmful consequences to human health and social management.
“In reality, no one will spend much money for painful surgeries just to be ‘stylish’.”
He said the government should provide psychological and legal counseling for people who want to have sex reassignment surgery.
“So the Civil Code should recognize the right to gender reassignment by simply saying that adult people have the right to it.
“The government can then issue a decree to ensure best consulting and medical services for them.”
Recognizing transgender people would not only recognize their right to live with their real gender identity, but also “solve many social issues like reducing discrimination and social evils since transgender people being forced to the street.”