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On This Day
Wednesday, 24 September, 2003
Vietnam man's fight to become a woman

By Nga Pham
BBC Vietnamese service

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.

Nguyen Trong Tien
Tien says his life has always been a struggle
Only he does none of these.

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.

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.
Most of the time, they think I am a pervert, someone who is obsessed with a sick idea

"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.

Drastic decision

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.

Nguyen Trong Tien
Tien says he will not give up his fight
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.

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