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
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.
Only he does none of these.
Tien says his life has always been a struggle
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
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
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
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.
Tien says he will not give up his fight
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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