Vietnamese transgender people celebrate win

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Ms Phong had to go for gender reassignment surgery in Thailand as she could not get it done in Vietnam

This week, Vietnam passed a law which will allow people who have undergone gender reassignment surgery to register under their new gender. For many people living in limbo since their operation this was an extraordinary moment, as the BBC's Nga Pham finds out.

When Le Anh Phong heard the news she was so happy she broke down in tears.

"Then I called my mother and my older sister, who have been my biggest supporters, and they cried too," she says.

Ms Phong, 27, then joined more than 100 people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community to stage a small but joyful rally in central Hanoi to celebrate the event that they have waited for "for such a long time".

Born Le Quoc Phong, the theatre designer decided to change her middle name to a more feminine "Anh" (meaning sunray) as she always knew she was a girl.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Ms Phong celebrated with members of the LGBT community in Hanoi on Tuesday evening

"I wanted to wear pretty clothes and I liked boys and at school I was taunted badly for that. My parents were also in denial for a long time."

After years of struggle to be accepted by family and friends, Phong got enough support to realise her dream of becoming a woman.

"I went to Thailand for a sex change operation that lasted four painful hours in March 2013," Ms Phong tells the BBC.

"I came back to Vietnam as a pretty girl, exactly how I imagined myself. But in [identity] papers, up to now, I am still Le Quoc Phong, male".

Vietnam's new transgender law explained

Image source, Reuters
  • It allows those who have undergone gender reassignment surgery to register with the government under their new genders
  • The law comes into effect on 1 January 2017, and officials are in the meantime working out the details.
  • It is hoped that the law would allow Vietnamese hospitals to conduct gender reassignment surgeries for anyone.
  • Currently only those without complete sex organs or those born with both female and male sex organs can have gender assignment and genital reconstruction surgery.

"This is an important and most welcomed first step," says Tran Khac Tung, director of ICS Vietnam, a LGBT awareness and support organisation based in Ho Chi Minh City.

According to ICS, there are around 270,000 transgender people in Vietnam.

The victory was the fruit of more than two years of tireless fighting and lobbying by LGBT activists for their legal rights, says Tung, adding that it was "such a miracle that the issue of transgender people's rights was brought before the busy National Assembly for discussion".

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Many people held up signs thanking Vietnam's parliamentary National Assembly for passing the law

Vietnam seems to be a step ahead of Thailand, where despite the large number of sex change operations conducted, the laws still ban gender changes on national identity papers.

"I have to give credit to the transgender community in Vietnam, their determination, their solidarity," Tung says. "They have changed the whole society's perception about transgender people."

But he warns this is "only the first step".

"We still have to wait for the legal guidance of how to apply the law in accordance with international practice and the country's traditions, as the law stipulates," Tung explains.

At the moment, only people who have already undergone sex change procedures are subject to the new law. Those who haven't or who cannot afford the operation are not allowed to benefit from the legislation.

But activists hope that other LGBT groups can learn from the successful lobbying effort by the transgender community.

"Vietnam has yet to recognise same sex marriages, although same sex weddings have not been deemed illegal since 2013," says Tran Khac Tung of ICS.

"That's what we are aiming for now."