Kendy Nguyen is a star bodybuilder in Vietnam. He's won numerous competitions, including taking the gold at the country's national competition back in 2016. But despite the accolades, Kendy still can't compete in the division where he feels most at home.
"I've had to compete as a woman," he told me.
Kendy is Vietnam's first transgender bodybuilder, a distinction that makes him a trailblazer in a sport inherently tied to machismo culture during a time when national attitudes toward gender and identity are undergoing a progressive shift.
Vietnam is far ahead of many of its regional neighbors in Southeast Asia when it comes to recognizing the trans community. In 2015, the National Assembly amended its civil code to allow those who undergo gender reassignment surgery to legally change their genders.
But there's a catch: gender reassignment surgery isn't officially available in Vietnam, so that leaves trans men like Kendy with two options, either head abroad for a costly procedure or choose an underground alternative in Vietnam that's, in Kendy's words, "not legal and pretty shady."
And that's assuming that Kendy wants the surgery at all.
"I would most likely just have surgery on the upper part of my body,” he told me. "The technology for [female-to-male] surgery on the lower part of the body, I don’t think it’s very effective yet. It’s very rare to see a woman transition to a man with [genital reassignment] surgery. In my case, I don’t think I need it. My girlfriend and I are very happy the way things are.”
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Instead, Kendy is utilizing hormone therapy, but the injections he needs aren't officially available in Vietnam either. That means that Kendy has to travel to Thailand and purchase the vials himself, bringing them back in his luggage. He opens his gym bag and shows me a stash of carefully packaged glass vials that, altogether, are costing him far more than most people in Ho Chi Minh City earn in a month.
"Right now, the government is discussing all the details of it,” he told me. “If you want to be legally recognized, the plan is you’ll have to get regular hormone injections on the record from an approved doctor. That’s not easy to do, because the vast majority of trans people in Vietnam do the injections themselves, like me. We don’t do it in an official way.”
Financing their transition can be a major challenge for Vietnam’s trans community. Between the cost of hormones, surgery, and visits to the doctor, turning to the black market for more affordable alternatives can become all too appealing.
"I’ve seen a lot of young trans people choose the cheap options, but they can’t even imagine the side effects that can lead to,” said Kendy, adding that knows people who suffered liver damage due to a build-up of toxicity from these cheap shots.
“I’ve seen people selling hormones online for half the market price and I wonder where they could be getting it from,” he said.
But without the surgery and official hormone therapy, Kendy is still considered a woman in Vietnam. He's required to compete in bodybuilding competitions in a bikini, despite the fact that he later changes out of the top in the men's locker room.
"I live as a man, and I look like a man, so it would more likely create a problem if I went into the women's room," he explained.
Still, Vietnam's trans community has become increasingly visible in recent years. It gives people like Kendy hope for the future. He was recently asked to appear on a TV game show, something that definitely wouldn't have happened even a few years ago. The producers sought him out to “show the audience something most people haven’t seen before” and the majority of feedback was supportive, he told me.
There were some critics, of course, but Kendy didn't care much.
“I don’t react much to that kind of thinking, because at the end of the day everybody’s entitled to their own thoughts," he told me. "I just try to live a productive life so that people can see I am someone living to the best of my ability.”
The only reaction he ever cared about was his family’s, which is hardest part of coming out for trans people. Kendy knew as early as secondary school that he was a man, but he was unable to open up to his parents for years.
Eventually, he decided it wasn’t sustainable and started the conversation. His parents probably knew it was coming, he told me, but it was still very difficult. When they tried to dismiss it as a phase, Kendy took steps to show them just how strongly he felt: he made an announcement in the local newspaper to let everyone know that he identifies as a man.
“I wanted to make a statement,” he recalled, “not just to my parents, but to other young trans people who may not have the courage to come out.”
While winning his parents' acceptance was still a struggle, they saw his conviction. And as hard as it was, coming out as a man was still far easier than living his entire life with a secret. I asked him what his parents think about that conversation today, and Kendy told me they had grown to accept him.
"I’m basically the man of the house now," he told me with a sense of pride.