He liked to wear girl’s clothes and apply makeup. He was also attracted to boys. High school became a torture, because he had no close friends, no one in whom he could confide.
He started wearing dresses and applying makeup in secret.
Eventually, he decided to take the plunge and get a sex change operation.
27 years old now, she recalls: "My mother was shocked when she found some dresses and make-up in my wardrobe. She cried her eyes out. It took her a long time to accept my true gender."
Tu Anh is one of an estimated 300,000 transgender people in Vietnam struggling to be accepted by their own families and overcome social prejudices, discrimination and harassment.
Tu Anh as a man (L) and as a woman (R). Photo courtersy by Tu Anh.
A recent study in Hanoi by The Asia and Pacific Transgender Network found that transgender people usually get a strong sense of their true identity between the ages of 12 and 14. The average age at which they come out is 17.
The study also found that during the process of gender identification, many suffer stress, insomnia and anxiety disorders. Not a few think about committing suicide and some actually attempt it, usually around three years after realizing their gender identity.
In Vietnam, there are no regulations that cover hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgeries. Trans people thus find it difficult to access official medical services, and many end up using hormones on their own, putting themselves at great risk.
Some 73 percent buy hormones from friends and non-medical sources, studies have found.
Many transgender people in the country are bullied at school and also suffer sexual abuse. The ostracism they suffer also makes it far more difficult for them to find jobs than cisgender people.
Anh has failed to get a job despite applying for many. She says most recruiters turn down her application as soon as they see her appearance and curriculum vitae.
Tu Anh underwent sex reassignment surgery to become a woman. Photo courtesy of Tu Anh.
It has been four years since the government amended the Civil Code to recognize the gender of people who undergo sex reassignment surgeries, but transgender people are yet to be officially recognized. A law on transgender rights is still pending passage.
Nguyen Huy Quang, who heads the legal affairs department at the Ministry of Health, concedes that trans people face challenges when their current gender is different from the one on their identity card. Seventy one percent of transgender people say it is a struggle to register and be recognized by their new gender.
Nguyen Kim Mai, 24, a trans woman living in northern Hoa Binh Province, says she has faced a myriad of difficulties in getting her identity papers.
"I asked local authorities to change my name and gender. They told me to be patient until the government approved it. I have not succeeded in changing my personal information so far."
Quang says a bill on transgender rights is set to be discussed by the parliament soon. "The law aims to address all legal and administrative issues the transgender community faces."
Legal recognition of their identity and rights is something that people like Anh and Mai have long been waiting for.
"Only when there are transparent regulations can we access medical services and feel secure enough to undergo sex reassignment surgeries," Anh says.
Legal recognition would also be a first step to gaining acceptance from mainstream society and to removing the bias, discrimination and harassment that transgender people face in Vietnam, she adds.
It has been four years since the government amended the Civil Code to recognize the gender of people undergoing sex reassignment surgeries, but transgender people are yet to be officially recognized. The reason is that a law on transgender rights is still pending passage.
Nguyen Huy Quang, head of legal affairs at the Ministry of Health, says trans people face challenges since their current gender is different from the one on their identity card. Seventy one percent of transgenders say they struggle to have their new gender recognized and registered.
Nguyen Kim Mai, 24, a trans woman living in northern Hoa Binh Province, says she faced a myriad of difficulties with identity papers.
"I once asked to change my name and gender. Local authorities told me to be patient until the government approves this. So far I have not succeeded in changing my personal information."
Quang says a bill on transgender rights is set to be discussed in the National Assembly. "The law is expected to address the legal and administrative issues the transgender community faces."
Being recognized by the law and society is something that people like Anh and Mai have always longed for.
"Only when there are transparent regulations can we get access to medical services and feel secure enough to undergo sex reassignment surgery," Anh says.
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