Born female, but always feeling ‘a little different’, William represents a small but increasingly confident group of transgender people in Vietnam. He speaks to Claudia Davaar Lambie. Photo by Vinh Dao.
“What can I get for you?” asks the bartender, eager to please his ever thirsty customers. The busy bar in downtown Saigon is packed but we’ve managed to find a few seats at the bar. Ordering my cocktail, I begin chatting to one of the bar staff. About five minutes into the conversation I ask his name. “I am William,” he replies; a huge smile appearing across his face.
William, 24, is from a small province outside of Ho Chi Minh City. He moved to Saigon six years ago to study Hospitality Management at one of the city’s universities and now works at a bar in District 1; pursuing his passion for mixology. William, of course, was not born as William. He was born female, and remains genetically so, but as a transgender person identifies as the opposite.
Since he was a child, he has always felt a little different to his peers. “I [have] always liked wearing t-shirts, jeans and hats and played soccer with the boys. When I was 14, I had feelings towards another girl classmate at school and felt that [it] was unnatural.”
It took four years until William recognised that he was, in fact, transgender and at 18 eventually came out as his true self. He explains that during adolescence he was very confused about his gender and sexuality. “I thought I had a disease because it wasn’t natural and I felt hopeless.” Luckily, information on English language websites quashed this belief and William slowly began to realise that he was ‘normal’.
Interestingly, in Vietnamese there is no specific word for ‘transgender’. Instead the word lưỡng tính which translates into ‘same sex’ or ‘homosexual’ refers to the LGBT community as a whole. Therefore, there is no distinction made between those members of the LGBT community; everyone is grouped together. The reason for this is that Vietnam’s patriarchal culture traditionally focuses upon male homosexuality. This causes confusion for William trying to pinpoint who he is and where he fits in to society. He considers himself heterosexual (he’s a bit of a ladies man, with three women on the go) but he identifies himself as a gay man due to translation limitations. He thinks that there should be a specific word for ‘transgender’ in the Vietnamese language. This would be the first step in helping people define who they are.
However, Vietnam has come a long way in being recognised as one of the most progressive countries in South East Asia with regards to transgender issues. In August the Ministry of Health publicly urged the government to consider legalising sex reassignment surgery. This would be a huge step for transgender people in the country. According to government data there are around 500,000 transgender people in Vietnam, with an estimated 1,000 of them having undergone the operation already. In Asia, Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal legally allow sex-change operations.
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