Born female, but always feeling ‘a little different’, William represents a small but increasingly confident group of transgender people in Vietnam. He speaks to Claudia Davaar Lambie. Photo by Vinh Dao.

“What can I get for you?” asks the bartender, eager to please his ever thirsty customers. The busy bar in downtown Saigon is packed but we’ve managed to find a few seats at the bar. Ordering my cocktail, I begin chatting to one of the bar staff. About five minutes into the conversation I ask his name. “I am William,” he replies; a huge smile appearing across his face.

William, 24, is from a small province outside of Ho Chi Minh City. He moved to Saigon six years ago to study Hospitality Management at one of the city’s universities and now works at a bar in District 1; pursuing his passion for mixology. William, of course, was not born as William. He was born female, and remains genetically so, but as a transgender person identifies as the opposite.

Since he was a child, he has always felt a little different to his peers. “I [have] always liked wearing t-shirts, jeans and hats and played soccer with the boys. When I was 14, I had feelings towards another girl classmate at school and felt that [it] was unnatural.”

It took four years until William recognised that he was, in fact, transgender and at 18 eventually came out as his true self. He explains that during adolescence he was very confused about his gender and sexuality. “I thought I had a disease because it wasn’t natural and I felt hopeless.” Luckily, information on English language websites quashed this belief and William slowly began to realise that he was ‘normal’.

Interestingly, in Vietnamese there is no specific word for ‘transgender’. Instead the word lưỡng tính which translates into ‘same sex’ or ‘homosexual’ refers to the LGBT community as a whole. Therefore, there is no distinction made between those members of the LGBT community; everyone is grouped together. The reason for this is that Vietnam’s patriarchal culture traditionally focuses upon male homosexuality. This causes confusion for William trying to pinpoint who he is and where he fits in to society. He considers himself heterosexual (he’s a bit of a ladies man, with three women on the go) but he identifies himself as a gay man due to translation limitations. He thinks that there should be a specific word for ‘transgender’ in the Vietnamese language. This would be the first step in helping people define who they are.

However, Vietnam has come a long way in being recognised as one of the most progressive countries in South East Asia with regards to transgender issues. In August the Ministry of Health publicly urged the government to consider legalising sex reassignment surgery. This would be a huge step for transgender people in the country. According to government data there are around 500,000 transgender people in Vietnam, with an estimated 1,000 of them having undergone the operation already. In Asia, Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal legally allow sex-change operations.

William knows a handful of people like himself in Ho Chi Minh City and feels generally comfortable in his own skin and day-to-day life here. At university he studied a module in Gender Development and this helped himself and his fellow classmates understand the complexities in more depth; something he is grateful for. He has many friends who are supportive of how he has chosen to live his life.

Respect is a common thread that runs throughout our conversation. His friends and colleagues are respectful towards him and he gives this in return. Being accepted is very important to him and he explains that “people love me because I am myself”.

“My ability is what is important not my gender. Those that understand me will hire me. I can try my best [at my job].”

In terms of accessing employment as a transgender person, William’s stance on this is inspiring as he explains, “My ability is what is important not my gender. Those that understand me will hire me. I can try my best [at my job].” William has been working ever since he graduated. However, he does think that there are specific sectors that are more favourable for transgender people. “I could never work in finance or banking, the people are too serious and wouldn’t understand me,” he says. “In hospitality, I can be myself and in the [hospitality] field there are a lot of homosexuals like me.”

Current legislation in Vietnam prohibits those who identify as a different gender from changing their name on any legal documentation except if the person is born as intersex. The Ministry of Health has also suggested amendments to the Civil Code that would allow transgender people to change their name on official documents. The ministry says there are about 600 people in Vietnam who have transition and are officially waiting to change their birth certificated and identification cards.

Asking William if he would like to legally change his name he replies with a surprised tone: “Of course! I want my name on the ID Card and passport to be who I am. My name shows everyone this.”  With regards to employment, William has to write his birth name on his resume and it is obligatory that this matches his ID Card. This can create confusion and embarrassment both for the employer and potential employee when they are invited to an interview.  William remains optimistic that changes to the law to permit name change may happen in the future.

William’s gender expression manifests in his clothes and hairstyle. For him, this is central to how he presents himself to others. However, when William visits his family every three months he says he has to hide who he is. “I go home as someone else. I wear colourful clothes but I don’t [wear] pink, maybe blue. I also grow my hair longer.”  At home, William’s mother and father know that their child has changed their gender but they refuse to broach the subject. The family calls William by his birth name. “I feel uncomfortable when I go, but I have to visit my family and take care of them.”

When I ask William if he should speak to his family and tell them about his true gender there is a major concern that stops him; the lack of accurate information about transgender people that is available to the public. For him, dissemination of correct information about the LGBT group is crucial. “How can I tell my family when they don’t understand about people like me?” he asks.