by Nguyen Thu Hien
HA NOI (VNS)— At Chao Coffee Shop, Tran Ngoc Ly, a male-to-female transgender person, gives a waiter a gentle smile as she sits down at a window-side table.
|Nguyen Huong Giang, talks about her transgender experience while competing in the TV reality show Viet Nam Idol on Friday. Giang, 25, took part in the same contest in 2010 as a male named Nguyen Ngoc Hieu. — Photo by VnExpress.
She strokes her wind-swept short hair. Her glossy, thick lips and red nails make her attractive. Most of the people in the cafe eye Ly curiously, not only because of her beauty but because other parts of her body hint at her original gender.
Ly, one of nearly 170,000 transgender people in Viet Nam, says she has gotten used to such a reaction over the years.
"No matter what happens, I feel comfortable and happy in myself. I am proud to live according to my gender identity, not my biological gender."
"I have my family, who consider me their lovely daughter, and a group of transgender friends who share my sadness and happiness and improve my knowledge about my gender identity. These are my safest and most comfortable places whenever I get lost or feel upset."
However, 21-year-old Ly experienced a tough fight in gaining her family's acceptance as a girl.
Ly was interested in playing with dolls and wearing colourful dresses and make-up from a young age, and felt angry whenever she wore boy's clothes. When she turned 16, Ly became confused and even scared whenever she acknowledged her "abnormality".
"I called centres for psychological consultations and they advised me not to think and live differently to others, but it was impossible for me to believe that I was anything other than a girl."
With professionals offering little in the way of help or guidance, Ly took to the internet to find information about her situation. It was there that she discovered the term ‘transgender person'.
Le Quang Binh, director of the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment, says transgender people's expectations of their gender differ from that of their actual biological gender. The term ‘transgender' is relevant to gender identity while homosexuality and lesbianism are related to one's sexual orientation, he adds.
Binh's colleague, Dr Pham Quynh Phuong, says, unlike homosexuals and lesbians, who only realise their sexual orientation when they fall in love with someome of the same gender, transgender people express and realise their gender identity from a young age.
She says that when a transgender person grows up, they enter into a psychological crisis trying to figure out who they are, while facing discrimination from others at school or in public places because of their differences.
A survey of transgender people in Ha Noi and HCM City, recently released by the institute, shows that many of the interviewees have experienced such persecution.
Binh and Phuong agree that homosexuals and lesbians can choose to express their sexual preference with people of the same gender or not, but transgender people find it difficult to hide their gender identity, which is expressed naturally through their personality, style and behaviour.
As a result, transgender people are more likely to be discriminated against by their family and society. Many have to drop out of school and leave their home.
Ly used to try to hide her gender identity by pretending to be a boy. However, by doing so, all she felt was irritation and depression. Her increasingly subconcious feminine actions and lifestyle choices eventually revealed her gender identity to her high school peers, which Ly describes as the "darkest period" of her life.
Ly recalls the times she had dirty water poured on her and had her test papers and textbooks thrown away by the other kids. She had no friends and couldn't ask anyone for help, not even her teachers whose prejudices made them think Ly had mental problems.
As a result, Ly decided to give up on her study, however, her parents forced her to return to school. They assumed Ly was merely lazy and failed to notice her situation.
Despite what was happening to her, Ly still regards herself as lucky as it was during that low point that she joined a group of transgender people on the internet who gave Ly the strength to tell her parents everything.
"At first, my mother threatened to commit suicide while my father insisted on taking me to hospital to treat my disease." Eventually, and by no means easily, Ly's parents began to consider her as their daughter, not their son.
Ly's mother says a parent cannot refuse their child's happiness in any way. In this case, her son would only be happy once his family accepted him and his gender identity.
"We felt not only shock, pain and shame but also a lot of worries about the future and safety of our child. However, we gradually learned to treat and accept him as a girl."
Regardless of the problems that can arise in one's family, society creates even bigger headaches for transgender people. According to the aforementioned survey, transgender people have few chances to get a job and face barriers accessing health services.
Binh says many transgender people, especially those undergoing sex-change operations, earn their living through prostitution or performing at funerals. Consequently, transgender people face the highest risks of contracting sexual and psychological diseases.
According to Binh, many also put their lives at risks by injecting hormones or using medicine to transform their biological gender by themselves. Also, due to identification cards and other legal documents containing information of their biological gender, transgender people encounter many legal troubles.
All of these problems are a result of a lack of legal regulations that fail to acknowledge the existence of transgender people, he says.
Currently, Vietnamese law does not allow for any gender changes to be made to identification cards, passports or birth certificates, unless it is impossible to define the gender without sex reassignment surgery.
According to Phuong, the law forbids gender transformation based on objective demand.
While Ly has always wished to be a woman, and nutures her appearance to do so, she refuses to undergo any transformative surgery until Viet Nam legally acknowledges transgender people.
"Nothing good will happen following surgery. I won't be given an identification card, a job, or receive support from public health services. I won't be able to marry legally or have children."
Ly says it is irresponsible for anyone to believe their life will improve after sex transformation surgery, just as it is also irresponsible for anyone who isn't legally married to live with their partner. All of this contributes to society's misunderstandings about transgender people.
"I ask my friends whether they think their lives will be better or worse if they undergo surgery so that they can make their right decision."
As well as trying to convey this message to transgender people, Ly also spends her time organising performances to disseminate knowledge of transgender people to society.
"We don't beg for their pity, only a fair assessment."
Experts say it should be legal for transgender people to alter their gender.
According to Phuong, it is necessary to make amendments to decree 88, which regulates redefinition of gender to ensure transgender people have the right to sex transformation surgeries and make changes related to gender in legal documents.
An official from the Ministry of Justice says, like all citizens of the country, the rights of transgender people are always respected, and that related laws are under review to make them more feasible and suitable. However, this is a long process that takes time and effort.
Using her wet index finger to sketch a bird fluttering its wings on the table, Ly sums up her plight with a metaphor: "We are like birds. In the cage, the birds still sing. But when the birds are freed from the cage, they sing more. In that case, why not let us be free, too?" — VNS