HOMOSEXUALITY IN VIETNAM

HOMOSEXUALITY IN VIETNAM

Homosexuality is regarded as a disease in Vietnam. It is also ranked as a "social evil" along with prostitution and drug abuse. Even so historically it has been tolerated. There are no laws or regulations on homosexuality or homosexuals in Vietnam, and no mention of gays as a risk group for HIV and AIDS.

According to the U.S. Department of State: Consensual same-sex sexual activity is not criminalized, although by decree, individuals may not change their gender. There was no reported official discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but societal discrimination and stigma were pervasive. A lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community existed but was largely underground. A 2009 survey of more than 3,200 LGBT individuals by the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy, and the Environment reported that 4.5 percent claimed they were victims of assault or physical abuse by homophobic individuals and 6.5 percent claimed they lost jobs because of their sexual orientation. The institute also reported that government officials, the Women’s Union, and the Lawyers Association participated in sensitivity training during the year. Most LGBT persons chose not to tell family of their sexual orientation for fear of being disowned, and a 2011 online survey, conducted by the Information Sharing and Connecting Group with more than one thousand LGBT respondents, noted that more than 20 percent were forced into counseling by their families. [Source: 2011 Human Rights Reports: Vietnam, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,U.S. Department of State; 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Report, May 24, 2012 ***]

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: In Vietnam, there has historically been relatively little male homosexuality, although a few of the emperors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did maintain male concubines. In present-day Vietnam, homosexuality is still regarded as being a foreign problem, and, as in other socialist countries, there is a lack of official research on homosexual behavior. In fact, homosexuality is quite a common sexual behavior. It may well be that the Communist state is reluctant to recognize its existence. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

The Vietnamese use more than one expression for the Western neologism homosexuality, although all have the same underlying meaning of "half man and half woman." For example, Dong Tinh Luyen Ai is a literal translation via Chinese of "homosexuality," which dates back to 1869. Its entry date into the Vietnamese language is not very clear. It did not appear in Dao Duy Anh’s Han Viet Tu Dien of 1931, but it did appear in his Phap Viet Tu Dien of 1936, and might have had limited currency in the journalistic vocabulary of the 1930s. \*/

The concept of homosexuality only came into greater use with the introduction of Western psychology and sexology in so-called hygiene manuals in the 1950s and 1960s. Ai Nam Ai Nu is the closest descriptive approximation to what is meant ontologically and behaviorally by the Western term homosexuality, though, if one takes Ai as a verb, the term comes closer to "bisexual" behavior. It did not come into use before the 1940s. Another variation on this term, which is more common in the biological and medical vocabulary, is Ban Nam Ban Nu. Pe De, for the French pederaste, is probably the most common byword for a gay person in Vietnam. It is urban in origin and can be dated to the French usage of the word. From the Chinese is borrowed Ke Gian, which is mostly used to depict anal intercourse, being thus is not limited to same-sex practice ("Vinh N." 1999). \*/

Sexual encounters between male adolescents may be facilitated by socially sanctioned close physical contacts considered "normal" between males, such as holding hands and resting or sleeping close together in the same bed. As far as the prevailing sexual activities, mutual masturbation and fellatio, are concerned, there does not appear to be any strongly developed sense of playing a masculine or feminine sexual role of the kind as is often found in other societies where anal intercourse is more prevalent and the ultimate objective of homosexual encounters. \*/

Proschan (1998) has reported that although "gay" might be the only English word some of his informants had known, they had embraced it as their own and imbued it with meanings that diverge from those of Englishspeakers elsewhere: Vietnamese men today are fashioning diverse ways of living as men-who-love-men, drawing variously on endogenous traditions and identities as well as exogenous concepts and practices, combining and recombining them, and at the same time contesting both cultural conventions that would condemn homosexuality as incompatible with filial piety and metropolitan notions that would insist there is only one way to be authentically gay. \*/

Homosexuality in Vietnam Under French Rule

Jacobus X. (1898) interpreted homosexuality as a questionable behavior resulting from the Chinese cultural influence, and a sign of decadence that disappeared after the French influence gained influence. If it was practiced by the French, he claimed, it was only to escape the dangers of syphilitic female prostitutes. Interestingly, he does not discuss the interdependency between male prostitution and homosexuality. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

According to Jacobus X, the customers in this era were Chinese and French, and the prostitutes Annamite boys: It is only the nays and the boys who come in direct and permanent contact with the Europeans. Nay signifies "basket." The nays are children of from seven to fifteen years, who are provided with round baskets. They are found on the quays, in the market, and in front of the shops, waiting for a customer to make a purchase of any kind... . It is from these baskets that the class of boys is recruited. These latter are from fifteen to twenty-five years of age [acting as valet]... . When once he [the nay with his basket in which he carries the goods] gets to your house, if he should suspect that you have depraved tastes, he will soon offer you his services: "Captain" (everybody was a captain in 1860) "me much know chewchew banana," and if the client appeared to hesitate, "Me know ablic." That is sabir (patois). The nay and the boy are generally, to use the Tardieu’s expression, "suckers of the dart." ... Whilst the European lies at full length on a long chair, or on his bed, the boy - kneeling or stooping - inguina osculatur, sugit, emissumque semen in bucca recipit, usque ad ultimam guttam [a kiss between the thighs, rise, ejaculate in the mouth of recipient, even to the ultimate]. \*/

"Although by preference a "sucker of the dart," the nay, or the boy, will not refuse sodomy, but he is not enthusiastic about it. It is not any moral reason which stops him, for he is above prejudices of that sort. It is simply the disproportion, which exists between the anus of a lad of ten or twelve years, and the penis of an adult European, for two nays have no objection to committing the act with one another. (Jacobus X. 1898)

Homosexuality During the Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, much of Saigon’s organized homosexual activity revolved around the city’s "gay" bars. According to Marnais (1967), there were a total of eighteen such establishments in existence during the late 1960s. Many of the customers could be found among middle-aged Saigon businessmen and teenage students. Only a small minority displayed the slightest effeminate trait. There were also homosexual steam baths, nightclubs, and coffee shops, and young boys, impoverished and orphaned by the war, sold themselves openly on street corners to passersby. There were at least four "call-boy" operations, catering mainly to wealthy Chinese businessmen and foreign (primarily French) residents. For American soldiers, it was risky to be involved in homosexual activity, because the army did not tolerate it, and suspected homosexuals were immediately given a dishonorable discharge (Taylor 1997). [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

The only hint that the long years of living in the jungle and tunnels of the Ho Chi Minh Trail left traces in the specific sexual preferences of the Viet Cong can be found in the reports of journalists. According to Scholl-Latour (2000), most of the Viet Cong were so uninterested in women when Saigon finally fell that the female prostitutes did not appeal to them. But it seems far more probable that it was the strict discipline of the Viet Cong that prevented them from "fraternizing" with prostitutes. \*/

According to Marnais (1967), who describes in detail male and female homosexuality, lesbianism could be found at all levels of society during the Vietnam War. There were three bars catering exclusively to lesbians, and lesbian marriages were also not uncommon in Saigon, obviously tolerated by a society that referred to such couples as "friends." He interpreted lesbianism in Saigon as particularly rife among the city’s prostitutes. The so-called "bull dyke" lesbian did not exist, but there was a role division between the "Sugar Mommy" and the young girl who lived at her expense. In the late 1960s, the Saigon Daily news reported a case about a major lesbian "call-girl" operation catering mainly to wealthy female tourists from the West and to jaded Saigon society women. The organization was disbanded when there was proof of the involvement of girls under 15. \*/

Homosexuality and Vietnamese Law

Proschan (Aronson 1999; "Frank" 2000) writes that neither homosexual identity nor behaviors had ever been explicitly illegal in Vietnam. The ancient legal codes of the Le Dynasty (1428-1787) and the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) detailed the penalties for crimes such as heterosexual rape, assault, adultery, and incest, but left homosexuality unmentioned. The only provisions in the codes that might refer to deviant sexuality were the prohibition against "men who wear weird or sorceress garments" (Le Code, Article 640; Nguyen & Ta 1987), and a prohibition of castration and selfcastration (Le Code, Article 305; Nguyen Code, Article 344). Both provisions were not found in earlier Chinese codes. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

On the few occasions when homosexual activities seem to have been punished, they had been treated as rape or as adultery (disregarding the fact that both partners were the same sex, and concentrating instead on the fact that one or both were married to other partners). Vietnamese legal codes had always been strongly influenced by the Chinese codes of the same eras. In 1740, when the Ching Dynasty in China elaborated for the first time in Chinese history punishment for sodomy between consenting adults, the Vietnamese did not follow suit, once again omitting any such prohibitions in the Nguyen Code that was promulgated soon after. Nor did the French colonials institute explicit prohibitions against sodomy or pederasty in their colonies, because under the Code Napoléon, these acts did not fall under the purview of the legal system. \*/

Although homosexuality or sodomy was not specifically referred to anywhere in modern Vietnamese criminal law, "sex buying and selling in any form" was prohibited, as were more general and vague crimes such as "undermining public morality." In the latest Law on Marriage and Family (1986), no article mentioned the State attitude or any guidelines for public opinion about homosexual behavior. The Penal Code did not mention homosexuality either in its articles on incest, rape, prostitution, sexual assault, or child marriage. But Vietnamese authorities could find legal basis for punishing homosexual behavior if they chose, because crimes such as "undermining public morality" could be used (as similar crimes of "public indecency" or "soliciting" are in the U.S.) to prosecute homosexuality. \*/

Gay Marriage in Vietnam and Crack Downs on Being Openly Gay

As long as it is not practiced "openly," state officials will not interfere. This is evident in the 1998 case of a lesbian couple who married in public. Because of the public ceremony, Vietnamese authorities were forced to act, even though they did not know how to deal with the couple: Two women were wed in Vinh Long province (about 70 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City). Hundreds of people, including friends, family members and a number of curious onlookers attended the ceremony on Saturday to celebrate the marriage of a 30-year-old woman to another woman aged about 20. Local authorities did not know how to react to the marriage (Lao Dong [Newspaper] March 8, 1998). [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

Two months later, the government reacted: Government officials have broken up the country’s first known lesbian marriage and extracted a promise from the lovers they will never live together. Twenty officials from various Communist Party groups met the couple for three hours at their home in the Mekong Delta town of Vinh Long. They were acting on instructions of the Justice Ministry in Hanoi "to put an end to the marriage," the Thanh Nien newspaper reported. It is unclear what kind of persuasion was used to get the couple’s agreement or what punishment they could face if they change their minds, but they signed a document promising not to live together, the justice official said. "They would have had no trouble with their relationship if they had not chosen to have a public wedding," a member of the provincial justice department said. The issue was raised at the most recent session of the National Assembly during debate on amendments to the law. There were many other homosexual women living together in the province but Hong Kim Huong, 30, and Cao Tien Duyen, 23, were the only ones who were married publicly, he said. He said the wedding was an unwelcome challenge to traditional sensibilities and public morality but added: "As long as they don’t wed publicly they are left in peace." (Reuters May 23, 1998). \*/

In 1997, the same newspaper launched a virulent critique of a marriage between two men in Ho Chi Minh City. The apparently lavish ceremony held in a big Saigon hotel provoked an avalanche of protests from residents. Other homosexual marriages have taken place in Vietnam in discrete ceremonies, but homosexuality remains taboo in the country, although it is not officially illegal. Vietnam’s first gay wedding took place in Ho Chi Minh City. The two men celebrated their union at a local restaurant with over one hundred guests. Some authorities, however, were not in the mood to congratulate the grooms. "It should be publicly condemned," said Nguyen Thi Thuong, vice-director of the city’s state-run Consulting Center for Love, Marriage and Families. "Public opinion does not support this." The police are reported as saying that no laws exist which would enable them to punish the happy couple. The honeymooners could not be reached for comment (Reuters April 7, 1997). \*/

AFP reported: "While police find it hard to take action against gay activity in public places, they move decisively on male brothels. One of Ho Chi Minh City's few male brothels was closed down last year and its owner slapped with a 10-year prison sentence. The mainstream gay scene in the southern metropolis is also facing hard times, with its only gay club shuttered, ostensibly for refurbishment. [Source: Agence France Presse, August 4, 2003 **]

On a raid on a gay sauna party, Agence France Presse reported: "Thirty homosexual men have been arrested during a raid by police on a fitness center in Vietnam's southern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh city, officials said. The men, including the center director, Le Van Yen, 29, were arrested after being caught having sex in the center's sauna and private massage parlours, a policeman from Go Vap district said. The center, which opened earlier this year, has been popular among the city's gay community with a reasonable entrance fee of only about three dollars, the state-owned Thanh Nien (Young People) daily said. During weekends, hundreds of clients visited the facility, it added. Attitudes in Vietnam towards same-sex relationships have relaxed somewhat over the last few years but many in this deeply traditional society still consider it a taboo subject. Although not officially outlawed, authorities in the communist-ruled country consider homosexuality a social evil. [Source: Agence France Presse, November 7, 2002]

More Openness and Tolerance Towards Homosexuality in Vietnam

AFP reported: "Outward discrimination of the kind sometimes found in Western countries is rare in Vietnam, possibly because homosexuality does not yet exist as a firm concept in Vietnam and also because a large degree of same-sex tactility is accepted as normal in Southeast Asian cultures. Male prostitution and public sex venues are widespread in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Zoos, parks, lakes, swimming pools and saunas have all been identified by state-run media as venues for sex between men. [Source: Agence France Presse, August 4, 2003 **]

As an indication of how open things have gotten in Vietnam, Truong Tan, a respected and openly homosexual artist in Saigon, openly creates art which celebrates his "obsession" with the penis. Among his works are paintings of a sitting Buddha and a crucified Christ, both with enormous penises, and a painting of penis-shaped subway train filled with men masturbating and having sex with each other.

In the late 1990s a grassroots gay group emerged with the aim of reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS among gay and bisexual men in Ho Chi Minh City. The Nguyen Friendship Society consists of about fifty volunteers who prepare and print leaflets about sex education to be handed out to patrons in bars and clubs. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

As publications like The Men of Viet Nam: A Travel Guide to Gay Viet Nam and Web sites like www.utopia-asia.com suggest, foreign homosexual sex tourism is on the rise. Many Western visitors, who are called "Rice Queens," leave behind everything they know about safe sex practices when they come to Vietnam. According to an estimate of the Nguyen Friendship Society, one third of Vietnamese men who have sex with foreigners do not use a condom, and may have never used a condom before. \*/

In 2007, Chris Pycroft wrote in GenerationQ.net: "A survey conducted in Vietnam schools shows that one quarter of high school student presume that 10 percent of their friends are gay. A survey conducted by the HCMC University of Pedagogy has found that homosexuality in schools in Ho Chi Minh City is on the rise. Three hundred students from different junior and senior high schools across the city took part in the poll, with close to half indicating that some school friends were gay, in some cases as many as 10 percent. fear of revealing one’s true self and igniting social prejudices? [Source: Chris Pycroft, GenerationQ.net, October 28, 2007 :::]

The study also found that 80 percent of high school students in Ho Chi Minh City do not think homosexuality is bad, and that only 2 percent of students frowned on peers upon finding out their sexuality."In truth, homosexuality has never come up in any of the meetings organized by the school’s pedagogical board or capacity fostering classes I have attended," Ms Minh said being initially Teacher Vo Thi Ngoc Minh said "This was a lesson on ‘Love’ in the citizens education course. After the class, a boy wrote me a very long letter saying he fell in love with another boy in a higher grade. He said, ‘How can one be happy when living a lie for confused about how to respond to the student. Hon Viet Applied Psychology Company Director Nguyen Thi Tam said the number of 13 to 17 year olds seeking sexual counselling is significantly increasing. "In 2006 every month we provided counseling to 10 teenagers on average. But in the first eight months of this year, the number doubled." :::

Vietnam Takes on Gay Issues in Popular TV Show

In 2004, Vietnam’s favorite television show, The Crime Police , was about homosexual killers. Based in an award-wining novel called A World Without Women , it featured a detective who searches for a killer whose brother has a gay affair. The show featured gay good guys as well as gay bad guys.

Margie Mason of Associated Press wrote: "A homosexual killer is leading police on a harrowing journey into an underworld they never knew existed. It's up to officer Lan to solve the case before another victim is found, but he must first confront his prejudices against a gay brother he refuses to accept. It sounds a lot like a hot new Hollywood teaser — only it's in Vietnamese. Vietnam's favorite TV show, The Crime Police, opens its new season this month by tackling a taboo topic and offering a lesson about tolerance. The plot is groundbreaking for this communist country where sex is mentioned only in whispers, homosexuality is still largely considered a disease, and the state tightly controls publishing and broadcasting. The 10-episode story line is adapted from award-winning novel Mot The Gioi Khong Co Dan Ba, or A World Without Women, which took Vietnam by surprise in 2000 when it became the first book to address gay issues in a serious manner. [Source: Margie Mason, Associated Press, September 11, 2004 \\\\]

"Author Bui Anh Tan, 38, said he believes Vietnam is finally ready to see the topic discussed on national television. "I think the society will have to accept the reality," he said. "They cannot deny it because it already exists, and it will exist." Physical closeness between men — walking hand in hand or sitting with arms draped around each other — is socially acceptable in Vietnamese culture, but homosexuality is ranked by some as a "social evil" alongside prostitution and drug abuse. \\\\

"The TV plot follows homophobic officer Lan as he tries to unravel three similar murders of young gay men. Lan struggles with the crimes and eventually seeks help from a journalist friend who writes about gay issues. Meanwhile, Lan's gay brother, whom he beat and drove off, falls in love with another officer investigating the murders. Before catching the killer, Lan himself eventually becomes more understanding and welcomes his brother home, hoping he will leave the police officer and marry a woman but agreeing to accept him regardless of whom he chooses as a partner. It's an ending that Tan didn't have for the first two editions of his book, but fought hard to have included in the recently released third edition. \\\\

Gays in Vietnam Seek an Identity

AFP reported: "Although relatively free from discrimination, some Vietnamese gays feel their existence is ignored rather than accepted With his pink lipstick, eye makeup and black nail varnish, Ti prefers not to shake hands and instead raises his arm into the classic, cliched limp-wristed position. "I knew I was gay from the age of five or six," said the 27-year-old, sitting in a coffee shop in Vietnam's southern business capital of Ho Chi Minh City. "I started wearing girls' clothes at first, and then when I was about 14 I started wearing makeup." Ti stands out everywhere he goes in the city, whether he is with other gay men or not. "I don't care what people think. I don't feel discriminated against anyway. I've never been attacked or verbally abused," he said. While cross-dressers are few and far between in the bustling metropolis, homosexuals are not. [Source: Agence France Presse, August 4, 2003 **]

"Two years ago, Chung A, the head of the country's anti-AIDS, prostitution and drugs committee, declared that the number of gays in Vietnam could be counted on the fingers of his two hands. By March this year, Chung had changed his tune. "The number of homosexuals has increased a lot and the issue of AIDS prevention in this group needs to be addressed," he was quoted by the Lao Dong newspaper as saying. The dramatic increase in the number of openly gay men in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi has sparked considerable media interest, with most newspapers labeling homosexuals as being either ill or victims of a current trend. **

"In the women's magazine The Gioi Phu Nu, a married man wrote into an agony-aunt column in May to express his distress at having fallen in love with a young man. The response was less than sympathetic. "It's fortunate you and the young man are conscious of your `horrific love affair' and that you want to find a way out," said the magazine's advice columnist. "I suggest you find a doctor who specializes in this field, be brave, admit your sickness and get cured." The family magazine Tiep Thi Va Gia Dinh also did not mince words on the topic of homosexuality. "Loving people of the same sex is deviant behavior that is incompatible with the good morals and time-honored customs of Vietnam," it asserted in a March issue. **

But Le Hoang, the popular director of the controversial sex and drugs movie Bar Girls, struck a softer tone when he answered questions about homosexuality on a Vietnamese Web site in May. In response to a man who said he could tolerate neither the genuinely "ill" gays nor the fashion victims, Hoang said: "Why? Are you gay yourself? Gays are ill, but there is no law saying ill people should be punished." "Qualities such as morality, talent and dignity do not depend on sexuality. In Denmark, gays can marry. Well, Vietnam may not be Denmark, but we're not back in the Roman times either." **

"Gay identity is not well established in Vietnam. A man could have sex with another man and not consider himself gay," said Donn Colby, a Fulbright Research Scholar who conducted a survey entitled Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM) in Ho Chi Minh City in 2001. "Because of this the number of men who experiment with sex with other men is probably higher here than in the West." Those who do identify themselves as gay are careful about how, and to whom, they reveal their sexuality. Tam, a 24-year-old graphic design artist, has never told his parents, fellow students or work colleagues that he is gay. "If you don't officially announce it, then people are obliged to treat you equally," said the slightly-built amateur DJ. **

"Donn Colby believes the omission of homosexuals from public HIV prevention messages has encouraged MSM to underestimate their vulnerability to infection. The misconception is worrying, given that Colby's survey of 219 MSM concluded that members of this group have multiple sexual partners, do not use condoms regularly and are at high risk of contracting HIV. "But things are changing slowly," said Colby. "A programme (funded by the Ford Foundation) on men's sexual health in Nha Trang includes MSM." Minh, a 24 year-old architect with a French boyfriend, expressed his frustration at the gay community's lack of clear identity. "I just think we should think more about us as a group. We should let people know that we exist," he said. "Coming out is not enough. We need a voice." **

Transsexuals and Gender Conflicted Persons in Vietnam

Bao, Long, & Taylor (1998) report that a transgendered person in Vietnam is mainly a "man" who wears female clothes and presents himself as a female. Bong cai is the common term in the south and is translated literally as "female shadow," whereas dong co is the common term in the north and is translated as "woman goes into a trance," revealing its origin from the shamanistic tradition: The male ong dong or the female ba dong are shamanic mediums who incarnate a pantheon of spirits, both male and female, during the course of a len dong performance in one of the fortune teller’s temples. They take on, in succession, the costume and comportment of the numerous spirits invoked, in what can be a daylong show of elaborate costumery. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

There are quite a few transvestites in Saigon who are trying to earn a living through prostitution. They look for customers in certain nightclubs and bars as well as on the streets. Being a transvestite seems not to be something that is displayed in public, and the search for customers is done in an aggressive though feminine way. It seems that Vietnamese transgendered males only have sex with men, never with women or with other transgendered persons. Transgendered males refer to one another as "sisters" (chi em).\*/

Jacobus X. (1898) mentions transvestitism in connection with prostitution during the French period of Vietnam: I cannot, however, pass over in silence, one eccentric form of the lusus amoris. The Chinese actors who play the women’s parts, come in their costumes [to the brothel], and assume the character of a modest virgin, afraid of losing her virginity, a refinement of vice which is much appreciated. In the presence of a number of old men, not very particular, the scenes of the first night of wedded life are represented without any shame. \*/

Commenting on transvestite singers and transvestite striptease in the homosexual nightclubs of Saigon catering to male homosexual transvestites during the Vietnamese-American War, Marnais (1967) reported that transvestite prostitutes would congregate daily on the terrace of the Continental Hotel in Saigon. They were reported to have disappeared from view after the Communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975, but recent reports from the informants of Carrier, Nguyen, and Su (1997) returning from Saigon show that male transvestites can be seen on the streets once again, and some are again earning their income as prostitutes. They may also make a living by joining a lottery team (lo to), often during adolescence, as singers. "Lottery team" refers to a mobile lottery team, who sell tickets and then spin for a prize at that establishment. The teams use singing to advertise (Bao, Long, & Taylor 1998). \*/

Vietnam man's fight to become a woman

Nga Pham of the BBC wrote: "Nguyen Trong Tien is an ordinary looking man. Perhaps he appears a bit younger than his 35 years and a little paler than most of the local men. But he is someone you would expect to see racing his scooter around the city, drinking with friends at a street side shop, or going football mad at the stadium on Sunday - the usual things a Saigon man of his age would do. His typical day involves locking himself up inside the house that he shares with his sister's family - watching television or writing one of his numerous letters and petitions that he then takes to the government offices. [Source: Nga Pham, BBC News, September 24, 2003 \*/]

All letters are short and to the point: Tien wants to have a sex change to become a woman. "Since I was five or six and living with my parents in My Tho, I realised that I was not like any of the kids around," he said. "My parents sent me to the village's school and when all the boys played football in the school yard I was always sitting next to the girls. I really wanted to become one of them. I wanted to grow my hair, wear girls' pyjamas and do the stuff girls do". But Tien tried very hard to hide it, as he thought there was something wrong with him. \*/

"My parents would kick me out of the house and my friends would reject me as well as call me bad names if they knew I was such a pariah. "For a very long time, I was trying to suppress my real person, to act and live like a boy, then a man. But the female inside me was always struggling to get out and I was really, really scared". When he was 16, Tien left home for Saigon. He was to train to become an accountant and to live in the city with his brother and sisters who had moved there earlier. Life in the big city, although busy and exciting, did not make his problems go away. He had both girlfriends and boyfriends. But he found he could not be with a girl as he felt as female as his partner. "And I cannot be with a boyfriend either, as I am not homosexual. I want to love a man, but only as a woman, complete with a woman's body." \*/

That year he wrote his first petition asking for an operation to turn into a woman and sent it to a hospital specialising in cosmetic surgeries. He never received a reply. Tien has been asking for an operation for 20 years now. He went to numerous hospitals with the request and the answer so far is 'No'. "Most of the time, they think I am a pervert, someone who is obsessed with a sick idea," he said. "So they ignore me". \*/

"Only once, at a major clinic in Ho Chi Minh, I was told they would do the operation if I could provide a permission from the Justice Ministry. "I went to the city's Justice Department but the officials there flatly refused to grant me the permission, saying there is no such law in Vietnam". Not only is there no legal basis, the concept of sex change is alien in Vietnam. It is usually associated with evil and decadent society in the West. Just a couple of years ago, there was not even a Vietnamese word for transsexuals. There was a French derivative - pede - which means homosexual. \*/

"The Vietnamese openly dislike homosexuality, because they think it is a vice. But at least homosexuals have their place in the society, however lowly and shameful that may be. There are also transvestites. They are often mistaken for homosexuals but many Vietnamese actually find their way of talking and dressing up entertaining. Transsexuals are a whole new species in Vietnam. Their number is unknown, their needs are not answered. The phenomenon is deeply hidden and highly illegitimate. Tien soon found himself in even more trouble as people around him now knew his story. He could not go out of the house without being teased or harassed. \*/

"The situation became more and more insufferable every day, and a couple of years ago, after a great deal of thought, Tien decided to resort to an extreme solution. One morning, he took hold of a razor, and a minute later passed out with his penis dangling by just a sliver of skin. He woke up in a hospital and begged the doctors to operate him and turn him into a woman since the damage was already done. But they refused and decided to reattach his genitals. "They did it without painkillers, while shouting at me for being a sick trouble maker. You can't imagine how painful it was. But I didn't die." He said he will not jeopardise his life again. "Now I don't want to die and I won't give up." The scar has now healed. Tien still lives with my sister's family. He is jobless and friendless and life is still extremely difficult. "But an online newspaper in Vietnam has published my story. Maybe one day I will be allowed to have my operation. I still have hope that it will happen," he said. \*/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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