Province authorities want transsexual to revert to male identity

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Pham Le Quynh Tram at her charity class in Ho Chi Minh City's District 4. Binh Phuoc Province authorities are set to revoke a 2008 decision that allowed her to officially switch her gender after earlier being a man.

Pham Le Quynh Tram has been very happy for the last four years since she became a woman, so far the only person in Vietnam officially allowed to switch genders following a reassignment surgery.

"I have led a good and happy life as a teacher at a charity class," the 39-year-old Ho Chi Minh City resident said.

"I have never caused any damage to society or affected the good image of Vietnamese women."

But her life is again set to change soon because authorities are withdrawing their recognition to her sex change.

Authorities in Binh Phuoc, her native province, are in the process of annulling the decision made by the Chon Thanh District People's Committee, the local government, in 2009 to recognize Tram as a female, saying regulations had been flouted in the process.

Le Tien Hieu, deputy director of the Binh Phuoc Department of Justice, said his agency has recommended that the province people's committee revoke two decisions made by Chon Thanh District in November 2009, one recognizing Tram's new gender and the other her female name.

It would tell the district to recognize Tram's former identity, he added.

Tram told Vietweek: "I was shocked to learn about the possible annulment. I am really sad. I will fight for my rights because it will overturn my life."

A 2008 government decree recognizes gender reassignment for people with underdeveloped sex organs and with both male and female sex organs.

Tram, who used to be Pham Van Hiep, said she used to be an intersex.

At puberty her breasts began to develop and she had to hide them since she was living as a male, she said.

"I ate a lot to become fat so that I could blame it for my breasts. As a result, I increased from 40 to 84 kilograms.

A strong-willed Tram struggled with his body but did well at school. He achieved the rare distinction of winning district titles in both math and literature.

He enrolled at the HCMC University of Economics but dropped out after a while to pursue his dream of becoming a woman. To earn money for surgery, he started classes to train high-school graduates preparing for university entrance exams.

In the beginning only poor students came to her class since many were prejudiced and stigmatized her.

She recalled some of the discrimination she faced: "People would throw stones at my house after knowing about my gender ambiguity. Others would refuse to use a glass I used even if it is clean, saying it was disgusting."

But her students' success gradually began to attract others.

She earned enough money and went to Thailand for sex reassignment surgery in 2008. A year later she managed to get her new gender officially recognized by authorities.

 
A portrait of Tram

She then moved to HCMC and worked as a tutor in District 4.

"Ninety percent of students in my class do not have to pay fees," she said about her charity classes where more than 100 students learn math, physics, and chemistry.

Nearly four years on, Binh Phuoc authorities have dropped a bombshell.

Public support

Following recent media reports about Tram there has been outpouring of support for her, and some people have even created fan pages in social media.

"She has suffered serious physical pain and mental depression due to discrimination. She has struggled half her life to obtain her identity papers," the administrator of the "clubs of people supporting Pham Le Quynh Tram" wrote in a Facebook entry.

"The [concerned] government officials might not have seen her tears of joy when receiving those papers. Why are they taking away her right to be herself?"

Ngan Pham, a netizen, commented: "Why didn't they revoke the decision during the last four years? And why did they make the decision in the first place?"

There has been a call for more policies favoring LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) people in general.

According to the Binh Phuoc Province People's Committee, Chon Thanh District made the decision based on gender tests by the Binh Phuoc General Hospital which is not authorized to do them.

Nguyen Huy Quang, the director of the Ministry of Health's Legal Department, said the 2008 decree on genders allows local authorities to issue such a decision based on tests by a hospital or medical council designated by the ministry.

But the ministry has not designated any hospital for this though there is a need and it is an issue of humaneness, he said.

It is considering appointing Tu Du Hospital or Cho Ray Hospital in HCMC to do tests on Tram.

"Next week the ministry will name three hospitals around the country that will do tests [in future]," he said.

But there is no indication that Binh Phuoc authorities are stopping the process of rescinding the 2009 decision.

Le Quang Binh, director of the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment, a Hanoi-based advocacy group, said the 2008 decree does not recognize transsexuals who have a complete set of sex organs and so "denies the right" to assume one's actual gender identity.

After Chon Thanh District authorities allowed Tram to officially change her sex, many transsexuals made a beeline for the place to register their residence there, hoping to also do what she did.

But despite their clamor, Tram has been the only person to be allowed gender change, he said, and called for amending the decree.

"Vietnam is considering amending the Civil Code and relevant laws to recognize transsexuals. The annulment [in Tram's case] will go against this and cause public ire," he said.

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It would set a "bad precedent" in dealing with similar cases, he warned.

Tram, who continues to go to her class, said she hoped the society would be fair to transsexuals so that they could integrate and contribute.

"I think everyone has the right to pursue their happiness."

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