Let's move the T in LGBT from silence to eloquence

September 11, 2022 | 04:24 pm PT
Luong The Huy Social activist
Let's move the T in LGBT from silence to eloquence
People protest in July 2017 against then-U.S. President Donald Trump's announcement in a rally in New York City, New York, U.S., July 26, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Carlo Allegri
"Transgender" might be a new term for many people in Vietnam, but there have always been people born in bodies whose sex does not align with their gender identity.

Transgender people make up around 0.3-0.5% of the world population, according to global approximates from numerous studies. In a world of 7.7 billion people, they account for over 30 million.

For decades, though, transgender people have stayed relatively invisible in most societies. They have remained an enigma of sorts for the laws of nation states, and have been typically grouped with other queer communities, describing them with terms tinged with discrimination and bias, without a definite, clear scientific basis.

Unlike homosexual people, transgender people know who they are and express who they are from very early on, making them prime targets for discrimination, isolation and even violence. Part of the adverse consequences they suffer is also reduced access to education and limited career choices. Many of them are akin to "outlaws", with no personal ID cards and the inability to have their true gender recognized, even after going through lengthy, dangerous surgeries.

When the National Assembly passed the Civil Code in 2015 and recognized the right for persons to change their gender, the transgender community broke out in tears of joy. They walked the streets and raised signs saying "Thank you National Assembly" as the entourage of parliamentarians passed by.

In 2016, the prime minister issued Directive 243, which requested the Ministry of Health to look into and build legal documents regarding gender changes within the 2016-2017 period. In 2021, another directive was issued, reiterating the mission but with a different timeline, from 2022-2024.

But until now, a draft for such a law is absent on the agenda. There are two obstacles to this: first, one needs to identify exactly who should be recognized as transgender, and second, one needs to decide if a law for a specific minority should be prioritized.

The draft proposes that a person does not need to have a complete transition to change their gender on legal documents. But some people believe there has to be stringent requirements for gender changes in order to prevent cases where people "misunderstand" who they are, or even "exploit" the law to evade certain responsibilities and enjoy certain benefits.

I understand these worries. But at the same time, I believe these worries hold no basis in reality, as regulations regarding hormone treatments, psychological assessments and other aspects of the issue are already arduous enough. Changing gender is far from a walk in the park.

The draft also proposes that transgender men, if they still retain their uteruses and get pregnant, be entitled to maternity benefits. There have been real-life cases where such a proposal can be relevant. In 2020, Minh Khang, a transgender man, and Minh Anh, a transgender woman, fell in love and decided to have a child together. Khang was the one who carried the baby as his uterus had not been removed yet at the time. His pregnancy was a success. Khang was the child’s biological mother, as also the father.

In a conference I once participated in, someone said gender changes cannot be done so "half-heartedly". A man must be fully a man, and a woman must be fully a woman, they said. I told them that this idea has no basis, either in medical science or in our society.

Procedures for gender changes entail many different kinds of surgeries and treatments, for example those that involve the genitalia, those related to hormones, and those for cosmetic reasons. No matter how "comprehensive" a surgery might be, one’s genetics and chromosomes cannot be changed. What does this mean? It means that all gender change surgeries deal with outside appearances only.

There are many non-transgender people out there with unique features: What about a man who loses a testicle after an accident? A woman with breasts lost to cancer? What about men with high-pitched voices and women with beards? All of their uniqueness cannot deprive them of the right to live and to be seen as a man or a woman. If we do not ask each other about our DNA or chromosomes in our daily conversations, why should we be bothered if a person has a penis or a vagina? Why should that be a factor for us to treat someone as the gender they identify with?

Changing one's gender is an entire process. There will be changes in many social, medical and legal aspects, but not all transgender people follow every step. Some may not want surgeries due to economic or health reasons, yet they want to be legally recognized as the gender that they are. And that desire is completely valid.

Tran That, former head of the department of administrative law, once said: "transgender people need to have their names returned to them." What he meant was that a transgender person’s identity is theirs and theirs alone, and it is the government’s job to acknowledge and protect it.

How many hormone shots have been taken in the shadow? How many people had to make their solo trips to Thailand so they could feel at home inside their own bodies? The problems for transgender people are not theirs alone. They affect their families, their friends, their co-workers and so many others in society. A law for transgender people would affect us all.

Acknowledging and protecting the rights of a minority group, no matter how small, would not only help them escape discrimination, but also let them achieve and live the life they deserve.

Without letting people express their real themselves, how can we make this world a better place?

*Luong The Huy is a social activist and director of iSEE, a non-profit working for the rights of minorities.

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