Cat Thy learned about social stigma very early in life.
She played with dolls as a kid, and always loved to dress in girls’ clothes.
All went well until she turned seven, when her friends started to abandon her, and that made her realize her behavior was not acceptable for someone born a boy.
She dropped out of school at 15 to save herself from peer hostility.
A year later she started to look for unofficial beauty services that included direct injection of liquid silicon into her face and chest to look more like a woman.
“It’s very uncomfortable, but I’ve got used to it,” Tuoi Tre newspaper quotes her as saying.
She takes two or three birth control pills a day, which she believes have hormonal effects that keep her breasts in shape.
The 28-year-old is still pretty much in hiding, but she and some 80 members of the LGBT community in Vietnam have agreed to let their life stories be revealed to the public at an exhibition in Hanoi.
The Drawers presents items they sent, those that are most closely connected with their life and journey to achieve their true gender identity, not the one the society wants them to carry.
In Thy’s drawer are many big needles, a box of glue, several bags of silicon liquid and different kinds of birth control pills.
“I have to have regular injections in some places and the holes there are big now. Sometimes I have to use glue to cover them or the silicon would flow out,” Thy says in a note sent to the exhibition from Ho Chi Minh City.
“The bruises on my body are the results of glue burns.”
Another drawer, this one belonging to Nang, 23, of Hanoi, only has a razor.
She uses it to cut herself every time she is sad, and it happens often.
“I’m a lesbian and my family keeps scolding me about that,” she says.
“Life’s so bitter and ironic. I can just laugh about my misery, about how people see me.”
But the drawers are not all sad.
Mong, a transsexual from Ho Chi Minh City, has pretty gowns in hers.
The 29-year-old said in a note that her mother used to beat her when neighbors reported her “strange” actions when she was a little boy.
“It was humiliating for her. She would beat me and rub salt on the injuries.
“She wished she had laid an egg instead.”
When Mong grew up, many boys from the families that used to tease her opted for heroin while she went into charity.
Her mother started to grow more accepting.
Several years ago her mother asked her to accompany her to the market to buy cloth for a dress.
“I still remember what my mother said in front of the market: that she wanted to buy clothes for her daughter, pointing at me. I was so happy.”
The exhibition, backed by UNESCO, the Swedish Institute and the Swedish embassy in Hanoi, is on at Vietnam University of Fine Arts until the end of March.
It has drawn many people who stand quietly looking at the items and reading the notes that have come along.
Nguyen Van Anh, director of the Center for Studies and Applied Sciences in Gender, Family, Women and Adolescents in Hanoi, who was among the people behind the exhibition idea, said everyone has some secret drawers, and the exhibition gives LGBT people a chance to share theirs.
“It’s not easy to open your secret drawer; there’s the risk that the majority will throw stones at it just because it’s different from the norm,” Anh was quoted as saying by Tuoi Tre.
“But no matter how much it is buried, the pain and desire will still be burning and it would be even worse.”
Camilla Mellander, the Swedish ambassador in Hanoi, said Vietnam has committed to provide a fair society for everyone, regardless of their age, health status or gender.
The exhibition is one step in the commitment being realized, she said.
It is aimed at achieving a society where no one feels any pressure or rejection for being gay, she said.