Singer and actor Cindy Thai Tai has been Vietnam’s most famous transgender for years, but only recently has the country had real discussions about expanding rights for people like her. By Lien Hoang. Photo by Dai Ngo.

She sings, she acts, she performs, but Cindy Thai Tai really wants one thing: to be ignored.

More than a decade after she had sex reassignment surgery, Cindy remains by far the most recognisable transgender in Vietnam. In the beginning, she tried to head off problems by coming out to the media.

“I used to go out on the street, people follow and ask many questions,” Cindy says.

But now, “people aren’t as interested or curious as before.” Just look around, she says, pointing generally at the capacity-level cafe where we’re meeting. Aside from a few friends who greeted her, no one is taking notice.

It’s a sign that transgender people are integrating into Vietnamese society more smoothly than ever. But inequality persists, and the topic of transgender rights is in a state of flux.

Last summer, gay rights in Vietnam picked up international headlines when the country’s justice minister broached the possibility of same-sex unions, as policymakers prepare to overhaul national marriage laws in 2013.

“Of course, it’s good news,” Cindy says of first hearing about the developments. “They’re gay, yes, but they’re still human, they just want to live their lives, be happy. Why not?”

She is deliberate in saying “they” because Cindy identifies as a woman who wants to marry a man, not as a homosexual. But as gay rights gain momentum, advocates are hoping transgenders can ride the growing wave of public support for sexual classifications beyond just ‘straight’.

Advocates for transgenders — not to be confused with transvestites, also known as cross-dressers — take issue with two main shortcomings in the law. The first prevents them from choosing their gender on an ID card, whether man, woman, or even another option. The exception is if an infant is born with male and female traits, in which case the parents can select a gender.

“If you ask me, the categorisation of the whole world into men and women, not allowing a third gender, is not reflecting reality,” Rosa Luxemburg country director Nadja Charaby says. The German research foundation co-sponsored a transgender talk in Hanoi in August.

The second challenge is sex reassignment surgery. Most Vietnamese who can afford the five-figure price tag fly to Bangkok where, unlike in Vietnam, the operations are available. That’s where Cindy went. She says she didn’t have the procedure because it would turn her into a woman — she did it to become the person she’s always been. That distinction is what Vietnamese don’t understand about transgenders, she says. Dressed in brown, double-buckle pumps, an olive shawl, and a butterfly clip holding her hair in a bun, Cindy tells me that even as a little boy she knew she was female, preferring girls’ toys and clothes.

Try as she might, Cindy never really got her parents’ acceptance. “My family fought all the time.”

She adds, reaching for a tissue, “It was hell.”

That’s one of the subjects that will bring tears to her eyes. The other is the death of her fiance.

Cindy, who has performed across Vietnam, the United States, and Europe, had planned to settle with her partner of three years in the United Kingdom. But in spring 2012, he died of complications related to a brain tumor.

She stopped wearing her ring, and she gave fewer concerts. When she did sing abroad, promoters billed her as the first Vietnamese transgender to come to town.

Besides entertainment, Cindy does makeup and owns a bridal shop near Le Van Tam park in District 1 — ironic, because she won’t tie the knot until the law (here or abroad) recognises her as a woman marrying a man. That’s what she could have had with her British fiance. “I want to wear a wedding dress for the most important day of my life,” she says.

The challenges of starting a family extend to children. “The saddest thing in my life is I can’t have a kid,” Cindy says. Instead, she looks after her sister’s son.

She also strives for some of the details that she believes more identifies her with the fairer sex, from keeping her age a secret, to wearing less makeup (which seemed more necessary pre-surgery), from naming herself after Cindy Crawford, to asking friends and acquaintances what they think of her gender.

“I joke with people when they ask my relationship with Cindy, I say, Cindy is more womanly than I am,” says Vu Ha Anh, a model, singer, and friend. “She’s very feminine, the way she thinks, the way she moves, the way she does everything.”

“I treat her like a real woman,” says friend Jacobs Nguyen. “Sometimes she’s really bitchy, she talks too much, she cries too much, she’s too feminine. But she’s a real woman.”

Few who know anything about Vietnamese transgenders have not heard of Cindy, whose celebrity might have been ahead of its time. Only in the past year have advocates started to catch up. The LGBT lobby ICS, short for Information Connecting and Sharing, says it recently has been shifting more attention to transgenders, after years of focusing on gay rights.

“Cindy Thai Tai may be the first one, but we need more people to come out and tell their stories,” ICS project officer Vu Kieu Chau Loan says. “Society needs to see more people come out, so they see that we have more of a community here.”