Gay rights in Vietnam are making strides, but are troupes of performing transgenders holding the movement back? By Vu Thi Quynh Giao.

It’s nearly midnight and Van, a male-to-female transgender, is performing with her usual group of Saigonese transgender women. Today, the group is booked for a funeral in District 7. Funerals, along with weddings and birthday parties, are the troupe’s most common stages.

“VND 300,000 for me to strip. Anyone?” Van, in her zebra-stripe bikini, announces as she raises a steel table with her teeth.

The audience, including the deceased person’s family, neighbours, and friends, becomes more animated. This is a big change from the more docile reaction to the previous performers, who mainly sang about motherhood, life and death, much too conventional and context-appropriate to be appealing.

Only when Van, who asked for her family name not to be used, goes on stage, performs her stunt in exchange for a cash tip, does the funeral become livelier.

It’s hard for Vietnamese society — or any society for that matter — to understand why such an exchange exists at funerals, many of which are entertained by Ho Chi Minh City-based transgender groups, now totalling about 100.

“I believe they are pressured into relying on their sexuality’s mystery to arouse the audience and earn extra money,” says Dinh Hong Hanh, a project officer at Information Connecting and Sharing (ICS), an organisation that has worked to promote gay and transgender rights in the Vietnamese community since 2008.

Many of these transgender troupes agree with Hanh, and find it difficult to make money in other ways. A group of 10 or more transgender women can get VND 1,500,000 for a four-hour show, sometimes longer. But if they don’t receive any tips, the performers won’t make any money off the show.

Performing transgenders in AsiaLIFE HCMCWhen asked whether inviting men to make sexual advances is merely a technique for earning more, Linh Trang, a 51-year-old transgender and the group’s manager, says it is.

“A lot of people think transgenders are high when we perform,” she says. “But there’s no sex drive here. How can there be sex drive when you’ve got to do it every day to entertain strangers, even rude men?”

Trang has been managing shows like this since 1995 and is fully aware of society’s entrenched stigma against transgenders, but is still defensive of her profession and fellow performers. “When we gather for practice or rehearsal, there’s no gambling or drinking,” she says. “And at funerals especially, we don’t just do dance music.”

More often than not, though, if they forgo dancing and try to pay respect to the deceased, they lose their audience’s attention, and with it their tips.

Back at the funeral in District 7, a middle-aged transgender in a formal white dress who sings more typical funeral songs instead of the more exciting performances her contemporaries put on, doesn’t receive any money from the audience.

It’s well past midnight at this point and many guests, most of them women, have left. But the yard in front of two linked houses, also the stage for Trang’s group, is still packed with about 50 men who sit across five tables covered in fresh food and wine. The men become more anxious as they wait for the performers, whom they refer to as “half male and half female”, to begin.

When a singer in a jumpsuit comes on stage and sings an erotic song while dancing seductively from table to table, the funeral becomes lively once again.

Some of the men start to touch the singers. Lan, 39, is one of the few women remaining at the funeral. As she sees this, she buries her face in her hands out of embarrassment. “My husband is still here,” she explains.

Lan says she has seen quite a few male-to-female transgenders perform at funerals, and almost all of them were touched by guests. “This humiliates us women,” she says.

But Lan continues to watch enthusiastically. Like everyone in this neighbourhood, she’s curious. “People are curious, you know,” she says.

LBGT rights in Vietnam have been in the headlines recently after the deputy minister of health came out in support of same-sex marriage and with the country’s first-ever gay sitcom, My Best Gay Friends, becoming an online viral hit. But Vietnamese are still largely conservative, and are groups like Trang’s standing in the way of LGBT rights?

“No,” says Hanh from ICS, “It sounds intuitively right to advise transgenders like Linh Trang to find a different job and stop selling their supposedly sexual strangeness. But it’s because we haven’t been in their situation, where employers in Vietnam can’t accept their sexual orientation, where they have a livelihood to keep every night, and where joy is simply found in mixing with people like themselves.”