As a conservative country’s LGBTQ community finally finds its voice, one athlete fights for the right to compete as his true self in a hyper-masculine sport.
It’s Sunday morning in Ho Chi Minh City. Blistering heat is vaporizing last night’s downpour on the streets of District 7, an upscale area southeast of the city center and popular with expats.
Under the unforgiving lights of a gym so polished it looks barely used, Kendy rehearses the poses that he hopes will win him gold at Vietnam’s national bodybuilding competition in November.
The 27-year-old bodybuilder and personal trainer turns to his side, lifting his front heel, and flexes his calf muscles. He inflates his chest and curls his arm, stretching the tree of life tattoo imprinted on his deltoid six months ago. The latest inked addition, a Polynesian turtle on the back of his hand, is three months old; “It means family,” he explains.
Turning away from his reflection, he squeezes his shoulder blades together and then swivels around, smiling back into the mirror. Concluding the routine, he pulls up his vest, flashing a washboard stomach, though he stops at the pecs. They’ll remain covered during the upcoming competition, too, but by a bikini top, since he will be part of the women’s division.
“I feel confident about the competition,” Kendy says through a translator. “I have to be confident. If I meet a strong opponent, I may lose, but what matters is that I see myself as a winner.”
Kendy claims the title of Vietnam’s first openly trans man bodybuilder. He’s 5’2”, all muscle, and could pass for a teen idol, despite trading his spiky hair for a crew cut a fortnight ago.
It’s one of the myriad changes to his image over the past decade, as he gradually aligns his body and his mind. The name on his ID card, Nguyen Thi Trang, indicates he was designated a woman at birth. (In Vietnamese culture the family name comes first; ‘Nguyen’ is the most common name in the country, and ‘Trang,’ his given name, is that of a female.) Since coming out as a trans man, he goes by just one name, ‘Kendy.’
With his position on the city’s bodybuilding team, Kendy has become a role model in the local LGBTQ community, which is facing a turning point in the fight for equality.
“Since I came out, some transgender people I know have been more open,” he says. “They don’t hide themselves anymore.”
On the first day of 2017, sexual reassignment surgery will be legal in Vietnam, and trans people will be permitted to change their ID documents to match their gender identity. There is a catch, however. Another law defining what conditions are needed to officially designate one’s gender, be it a simple declaration or an operation, has to be introduced and adopted first. Tung Tran, 43, director of ICS, Vietnam’s main LGBTQ advocacy organization, says the law will likely not be implemented until 2018.
Kendy stands at the crossroads of two Vietnamese communities – LGBTQ people and bodybuilders – in a patriarchal and conservative society where obedience is often expected of women above anything else, and homosexuality is discouraged.
Having taken some years to accept his true gender identity, Kendy’s family is still far more progressive than the Vietnam Bodybuilding Federation, which hasn’t even broached the subject yet, instead barring Kendy from competing in the men’s division.
“It doesn’t matter if I am a trans man or not,” he says with a smile. “What matters is my attempt at bodybuilding and that I put my effort into training.”
Kendy was born in the northern port city of Hai Phong. “When I was two or three, I knew that I was not like other girls,” he says. “I wanted to be a boy. I did everything like a boy and I hung out with boys.”
Being different at school did not make him a target for bullies, he says, perhaps because of his audacity. He was never shy of showing people he was a man. “So when I came out, people around me were not surprised.”
At the age of fifteen, he took up karate, but his training came to an abrupt halt three years later when he fractured his arm during a competition.
He moved to the more liberal southern metropolis with his parents, who had found hotel work on a fashionable downtown street, and his then eight-year-old brother.
He says it was about that time he wanted to begin living as a man, something his parents struggled with accepting. But first-time access to the internet in their new home exposed them to countless stories about people like Kendy all over the world.
“I have proved to my parents that I am a good person and I am living a good life,” he says. “Now they accept who I am. As long as I am happy, they always support me.”
His brother is “cool” with his gender swap, however Kendy admits that his mother prefers that he’d stayed a girl. “She usually teases me by telling me to get a husband and have kids.”
During his first three years after coming out as trans, Kendy worked as a hairdresser and receptionist. Wanting to build his physique, he joined a gym where his work ethic gained the admiration of bodybuilders. “I had short hair back then,” he recalls, “but I still looked feminine.”
One of the bodybuilders who’d gotten to know Kendy, aware of his desire to transition, asked Kendy if he would like to train professionally, as a male, sparking a keen “yes.”
Vietnam has enjoyed some moderate success in bodybuilding since the turn of the century. Pham Van Mach won the country’s first world title in 2001, and, most recently, four athletes won gold medals at the 2016 Asian Beach Games in September. Kendy attributes the swelling ranks of bodybuilders here to an abundance of online fitness tips, although he says fewer women have embraced the sport. Simultaneously, the trans community has become more prominent, joining pride marches and fighting for recognition.
Kendy has over five thousand Facebook followers who consume photo updates of his workouts, and ask him for exercise advice. His time is divided between the flashy gym in District 7, a worn, city-sponsored gym in District 11, and with his personal training clients at other gyms, many of whom, he says, are “trans men who want to change their appearance without having an operation.”
Trans people in Vietnam who want sex reassignment surgery currently have to travel, usually to Thailand, for the procedure. There are at least 270,000 trans people out of a population of ninety million in the country – fifty thousand of whom are trans men, according to the Institute of Society, Economy, and Environment (iSEE). These figures are based on data in comparable countries, social media groups, and its own networks, although the organization estimates the number may be much higher.
In a 2015 survey of 2, 363 people, iSEE found that trans people face more discrimination than any other LGBTQ group, particularly in their workplaces, schools and with their families. The report noted that some are forced into psychiatric treatment, and have little chance of work promotions, meaning they frequently occupy poorly paid, low level jobs.
“We love to see a role model in bodybuilding, and in different things as well,” says ICS director Tung Tran. ICS helps roughly 200,000 LGBTQ people every year through counseling and networking; Kendy is the only openly trans man bodybuilder on its radar. “I really appreciate somebody like Kendy who is open and comes out so society can understand more about the trans community,” Tran adds.
Tran backs Kendy’s dream of competing in the men’s division, which he has so far not been allowed to do. He currently competes in the women’s 52kg class, and needs to lose 3kgs more (6.6 pounds) to make weight for the national competition in November.
Kendy sweeps aside any suggestion as to whether other women competitors feel he has an unfair advantage, emphasizing that he has not undergone surgery. “Some women have trained for a long time and their muscles look very impressive, so they do not get jealous of me,” he says. “Physically I am still a woman. They treat me like a man but they understand that I compete in the women’s section.” (During a phone call, the national team’s senior coach, Huynh Anh, told me his job was to train athletes, not to answer questions from journalists. Nobody else in the federation would comment on whether a trans man might be allowed to compete in the men’s division.)
It’s 3:30 p.m, rainy season in Vietnam, and bruised clouds are rolling over Phu Tho Stadium in District 11, swallowing the shadows of boxers sparring near their motorbikes in the parking lot. Weightlifters nearly bursting out of their singlets raise iron plates over their heads and drop them to the ground, each thud jolting a nearby brood of chickens.
Kendy walks past the athletes to the city-sponsored gym where he completes half of his daily training routine – six hours, with one day’s rest every week.
Three months before a competition, he cuts out fatty, spicy and oily foods, and limits his amount of carbohydrates, leaving him with mostly fish, vegetables, chicken and egg whites.
“Sometimes I just cannot stand it and want to quit the diet,” he says. “I like ice cream, so I eat that and anything I want when I’m not in intensive training.”
The gym is a battered muscle-building factory crammed with equipment dating from the ’90s. Padding bleeds out of the benches and a few fans stir the aged stench of sweat and toil.
Wearing a diamond earring, shorts and t-shirt, Kendy takes a seat by the lockers and nods at two bodybuilders behind him.
Doping tests for the competition mean he has to stop taking weekly injections of testosterone for three months. They cost 300,000 Vietnamese Dong (about $14) each, and are imported from Europe. His family believes that sex reassignment surgery would ruin his health. Kendy has his own reservations as well. “If I wanted to do it, I would have to go to Thailand, and be forced to sign an agreement so I could not complain or sue if things went wrong.”
Contemplating the dangers, he begins describing the operation by tentatively pointing to his forearm and then his thigh. “They will take the skin from the thigh to make the body of the penis because that part has many nerves, and the skin from the forearm to make the top part. I am really scared of losing big pieces of skin so I don’t think I am ready for an operation.”
For now, he maintains his appearance with fat-eviscerating drills and testosterone injections. It seems to work. He says he’s had “many girlfriends.”
“I tell girls the truth after a few times hanging out with them. Some of them do not believe me. Sometimes gay men try to hit on me as well. They do not believe me until they’ve asked people around about me.”
The ring of clashing metal stops, and one of the bodybuilders working on his legs, Pham Ngoc Sy, 23, joins us.
“He’s my idol and inspiration in bodybuilding,” he says, beaming at Kendy. “He helps me a lot with almost all the exercises and with my diet.”
In the national competition, the bodybuilders can win five million Dong ($225) for gold, three million Dong ($135) for silver, and two million Dong ($90) for bronze. Kendy hopes to enter international tournaments next year and then leave bodybuilding to open up a café.
“I can’t do this forever because someday my health will not allow me to do intensive training anymore.” He smiles, offering a firm handshake, and says,
“I’m just a normal man.”
Translation by Cam-Tu Tran.