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True to themselves

Released at: 22:58, 11/02/2016

True to themselves

Vietnam took a huge step forward in November when it announced that transgender people would receive legal recognition and be able to access treatment inside the country.

November 2015 was a historic milestone for Vietnam’s LGBT community as the National Assembly legalized gender reassignment, allowing transgender surgery in the country and all transgender people to be recognized under law and receive all rights under their new gender.

Nearly 90 per cent of National Assembly delegates voted in support of legalizing gender reassignment within the Amended Civil Code, to come into effect on January 1, 2017. Vietnam will then become the sixth country in Asia, following India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Thailand, and the second after Thailand in Southeast Asia to allow reassignment and recognize transgender people.

Under existing law gender reassignment is strictly limited to only those who have genital defects or are hermaphrodites. Under the Amended Civil Code, any person who wishes to change their gender will be able to do so in the country and be issued with new identification papers.

One of the key figures in favor, Minister of Justice Ha Hung Cuong, told local media that the changes aimed at meeting a real need among a group of people that were increasing in number in Vietnam. As one of only a few countries in Asia approving gender reassignment and recognition, Vietnam has taken a huge step forward in its human rights efforts.

Sociologist Tuyet Minh, a lecturer in the Sociology Department at the Academy of Journalism and Communication, said that transgender people can now live and work as any other member of society. Government acknowledgment will also help transgender people gain empathy and acceptance from society, which has been difficult.

Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, said the Vietnamese Government had taken a small but significant step along the path of recognizing transgender rights, for which it should be commended.

Vietnam now has about 1.65 million homosexuals between the age of 15 and 59, accounting for about 3 per cent of the population, including thousands of transgender people, according to the latest survey by the Institute for Studies of Society, Economics and Environment (iSEE). The organization also conducted another survey that revealed around 87 per cent of Vietnam’s transgender people were discriminated against.

When the news was announced thousands of people in cities such as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang gathered together in city centers to celebrate the historic moment. People laughed, cried, hugged each other, and raised banners expressing their happiness, such as “Thank you, National Assembly”, “Time for change, time for trans”, “It’s your right to be you” and “Proud to be transgender”.

“We are celebrating this victory not only for our community but also for our country. Vietnam has become more tolerant and inclusive,” said one of them, Nguyen Hai Yen, Project Manager at ICS (Instruct, Connect, and Service), a Vietnamese organization based in Ho Chi Minh City striving for equal rights for LGBT people.

Huu Toan, who transgendered from a man to a woman, was struggling to believe it had actually happened. “I’ve been waiting for so long. It’s like a dream I thought would never come true,” she said. “In 2017 I will be one of the first people to register for a new legal identity.” Recognition of their being a “new person” is of particular importance to transgender people, she added. After undergoing surgery in Thailand two years ago she has trouble at the customs desk when she returned to Vietnam, as her female appearance was nothing like the photo in her passport. It was, in fact, just the first of many trials and tribulations, in job applications, bank transactions, paperwork at hospitals, and military duty, among many others.

Toan and other transgender people will be able to obtain new papers from January 1 next year. They can also get married if their partner is the opposite sex. “I feel like I’ve been reborn,” she said.

Together with discrimination and problems with paperwork, another more important problem Vietnam’s transgender people have faced is lack of access to appropriate health care, according to Hai Minh, who transgendered from a woman to a man.

Before he was able to afford breast removal surgery in Thailand he tried hormones without a doctor’s prescription, as many other transgender people have been forced to do by financial constraints. In other countries that already allow sex reassignment surgery, different amounts of hormones are taken at different stages of the process and health checks follow on from surgery, which have to date been unavailable in Vietnam. “There have been cases where transgendered people have died because they used hormones incorrectly, experienced complications after undergoing illegal surgery, or had surgery overseas but couldn’t afford the cost of returning to that country for follow-up treatment or have health issues addressed,” Minh said, adding that he has always been concerned about the risks he was facing. “It’s a lot of stress, but I accepted it in exchange for fulfilling my desire to become a man.”

As soon as the Amended Civil Code comes into effect people like Minh will gain recognition of their new identity and receive all rights, including specialized healthcare services at a cheaper cost. According to Vietnamese transgendered people, going overseas for surgery is very expensive, including flights, accommodation, and the surgery itself. There will now be demand for transgender surgery in Vietnam and it will hopefully be met.

Sharing the joy with the LGBT and transgender community, Quynh Van, a student, said although she is straight she is happy they now have the chance to live under their true sexual identity.

There are also still concerns. Thanh Nam, a gay man, said he did not want to transgender but wanted to have a new identity as a woman. Under the Amended Civil Code, however, only those who undergo transgender treatment can be legally recognized as having a new gender.

According to the Yogyakarta Principles, a codification of existing international law in relation to the rights of LGBT people, countries should consider measures that allow all people to define their own gender identity. Several nations allow gender recognition for individuals who have undergone reassignment surgery and hormone therapy.

As this is the first time Vietnam has approved transgender treatment, some are concerned about the quality of the procedure in Vietnam. However, Mr. Huy Quang, Head of the Legislation Department at the Ministry of Health, said that Vietnam is very confident in the skills of local doctors in conducting transgender surgery and providing hormone treatment. Vietnam can learn from the experience of other countries to help those who wish to transgender to gain proper consultancy and experience a trial period in their new gender for one or two years before undergoing medical treatment.

Some are also worried that new legal identities and marriage for transgender people may cause social issues. Others disagree, though, saying that as long as transgender people are recognized under the new gender they should have all rights under law. The country lifted the ban on same-sex wedding ceremonies early last year, to show more support for the LGBT community, even though same-sex marriage is yet to be made legal.

Lawmakers are working to publish additional legislations on transgender treatment by the middle of this year.

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