Vietnam’s first LGBT-friendly clinic provides relief from illness and prejudice

By Le Phuong   January 28, 2019 | 04:51 pm PT
Discrimination and lack of expertise on problems specific to the LGBT community made members hesitant about approaching public hospitals.

After Ha Mai underwent sex reassignment surgery in Thailand, she began suffering several complications in her genital area.

But, like most of her peers, she was hesitant to go to a hospital. Apart from the ostracism, she also knew not all doctors are familiar with health problems common to transgender people.

When she was going through her sex reassignment procedures, she bought her own medicine and also injected hormones on her own, not knowing how much was enough and the potential health implications in case of an overdose.

But now, one public hospital in Saigon has the answers Ha Mai and others need.

A month ago, the Binh Dan Hospital in District 3, Saigon, has opened a new clinic on its 6th floor, catering to members of the LGBT community, making it Vietnam’s first public medical facility to do so. 

Its service includes medical diagnosis and consultation, said Nguyen Ho Vinh Phuoc, a doctor with the hospital’s Department of Andrology, which oversees the new clinic.

He said a diagnosis and consultation session in the clinic takes a long time, typically between 15 and 30 minutes, sometimes even 40. In the past, LGBT patients had to visit doctors in common clinics with non-LGBT patients, so they were hesitant to ask more questions for fear that they were taking too much time from other patients.

A patient consults doctor Nguyen Ho Vinh Phuoc at the Binh Dan Hospital in Saigon. Photo by VnExpress/Le Phuong

A patient consults doctor Nguyen Ho Vinh Phuoc at the Binh Dan Hospital in Saigon. Photo by VnExpress/Le Phuong

For a long time, fears of discrimination has pushed LGBT patients to try and resolve health issues on their own or seek help from private clinics, Phuoc added. For their part, many private clinics took undue advantage of this situation and jacked up their service costs for this particular patient demographic, despite many not having the expertise to treat with their specific medical problems.

The new LGBT-friendly clinic makes things much better.

"We now have a place where we can consult doctors, get health check-ups and be taken care of like any other person. We no longer fear discrimination," said Mai.

Like Mai, Minh Thanh has considered going to Thailand for a surgery. But what Thanh wants isn’t a sex change operation.

Thanh is afflicted with DSD, a sexual differentiation disorder. While a normal person has either a uterus or a set of testicles, Thanh has both. A reconstruction surgery is required to remove the two testicles.

But Thanh was worried about being alone in a foreign country, just in case, something untoward happened. So Thanh had to resort to getting treatment at a local hospital. He used to wear a mask every time he went for a health check.

"My job requires me to communicate a lot so I was worried I would bump into someone I know at the hospital," said Thanh.

"With the new clinic, I can now consult doctors privately. It makes me feel so much reassured with much less pressure involved," he added.

Sex reassignment surgery is not covered by health insurance in Vietnam, Mia Nguyen, a psychologist who has worked with the LGBT community, told VnExpress International.

Vietnam is regarded highly in the region for supporting LGBT rights, having already scrapped the ban on same-sex marriage in 2014 and allowed transgender people who have undergone surgery to be registered and recognized by their new gender in 2015. However, the nation’s law does not recognize nor protect gay couples.

Despite the progress, harsh attitudes at home remain one of the toughest challenges facing Vietnam’s LGBT community.

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