Transsexual in legal limbo

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Vietnam's first and only officially recognized transgender person hopes the prime minister will issue a "˜humane' decision, enabling her to maintain her female identity and get married by year's end

Pham Le Quynh Tram (R), 39, speaks to Vietweek at her home in Binh Phuoc Province. The Ministry of Justice has instructed the province to halt its decision to revoke Tram's recognition as a transgender female and await further instructions from the prime minister. 

Pham Le Quynh Tram is hoping that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung will instruct relevant agencies to retain the decision which made her the first transgender person in Vietnam to become officially recognized as a female.

"I think the Prime Minister will do so because it is not only reasonable, but also a humane act," she told Vietweek. "Of course I will follow whatever he instructs, but I really hope he decides in my favor."

Tram's case has grabbed headlines over the past several months after Binh Phuoc Province authorities attempted to revoke the decision issued by the Chon Thanh District People's Committee in 2009.

Tram, who went by the male name Pham Van Hiep before undergoing gender reassignment surgery, is still the only transgender person in Vietnam to have her female identity recognized by the country's authorities.

Although she received the decision more than four years ago, initially word of her case spread primarily through the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community and only became known to the public more recently, after Binh Phuoc Province sought to revoke the decision.

Tram maintains that she was an intersex before taking the steps to become a female.

Under a 2008 government decree, sexual reassignment is only permitted among people without a complete set of sex organs or those who possess both male and female sex organs.

Following wide coverage on her case in the local media recently, the Ministry of Justice instructed Binh Phuoc agencies to await instruction from the Prime Minister before taking further action.

The justice ministry asked the province to let it and the Health Ministry consult the Prime Minister regarding the situation.

Tram, 39, teaches training courses in Ho Chi Minh City's District 4 to recent high school graduates preparing for their university entrance exams. About 90 percent of the students attend the classes for free.

She plans to get married by the end of this year to an overseas Vietnamese man whom she knew before she underwent gender reassignment surgery in Thailand in 2008.

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Tram said that thanks to an earlier report in Vietweek, several television channels abroad, including CNN and Al Jazeera, have learned of her case and have offered to report her story.

Tram's situation, together with the ongoing debate on legalizing same-sex marriage, has ignited the hopes of Vietnam's LGBT community, which wants the government to recognize more transgender people and legalize same-sex marriage.

A 2008 survey by the Ministry of Health found that around 7,000 people in Vietnam were unclear about their gender identity, though insiders said the actual number was much higher.

Several celebrities said they have faced many difficulties, despite many people knowing about their identification as transgender people.

Singer Cindy Thai Tai, who admitted that she was a transgender more than ten years ago, said she had transferred ownership of her assets to relatives before coming out as a female to avoid potential legal entanglements.

"I have always followed the news relating to similar cases hoping that one day I could live comfortably and happily with my true gender. The National Assembly used to consider amending laws for transgender people following my case, but nothing has been changed.

"It is really tiring waiting for that, though I understand that it takes time to issue new laws," she said.

Singer Khanh Chi Lam, who reportedly underwent transgender surgery in Thailand recently, also hopes that transgender people in Vietnam will become recognized.

"They [transgender people] are still living with an appearance that differs from their identity papers. However, there are times when they need a legal wedding, a legal family in which they have the rights of a wife," Lam said.

Many experts have thrown support behind the transgender cause.

Le Quang Binh, director of the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment, a Hanoi-based advocacy group, said many transsexuals had performed surgeries on themselves or abroad because the practice is outlawed in Vietnam.

He said attempting to perform surgery on themselves could be fatal due to bleeding and other complications, while the government loses potential revenue when transgender people go abroad to have operations.

"Thus, the law is trailing behind [modern] life and"¦ ignores the [legitimate] rights of transgender people," he told Vietweek.

At a conference on transgender issues in Hanoi last September, Tran That, an official with the Ministry of Justice, said laws should have protected disadvantaged groups like transsexuals.

"I don't agree with the idea that a law [recognizing the transsexuals] should be issued only after conducting a survey on their numbers and evidence of an urgent demand to protect them," he said.

"Give them their [proper] name! A woman in the body of a man should have her gender reassigned as female," he said.

At the conference, many transgender people said that most of them work as prostitutes or singers at funerals and lack opportunities to seek other jobs.

"No one wants to work as a street prostitute"¦ My friends sing at funerals and are often insulted before being tipped small amounts of money," said Cat Thy, a transsexual from HCMC.

She said she could not register for an identity card with a female appearance because she is a male according to her birth certificate.

"That's why I took a train to Hanoi to attend this conference: because you have to show your ID card to buy a plane ticket," she said.

In a recent interview with the Nguoi Lao Dong (Laborer) newspaper, That, the government official, said he is willing to help transgender Vietnamese by collecting their information and forwarding it to the Ministry of Justice for consideration in the potential modification of relevant regulations.

"We issue regulations to make life better. We should do whatever benefits the residents. Laws were created based on life and thus they should not be rigid or provoke violations."

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