A new law allowing hospitals in Vietnam to perform gender reassignment surgery is a “significant step” toward acknowledging the rights of transgender people in the one party communist nation, but the procedure should not be a precondition for legal gender recognition, according to a rights group.
On Nov. 24, Vietnam’s National Assembly (parliament) approved a bill to legalize sex reassignment surgery and to introduce the right to legal gender recognition for transgender people who have undergone such surgery.
The law allows Vietnamese who previously had to travel to neighboring Thailand or elsewhere abroad for the surgery to have the procedure done in Vietnam, and to subsequently change the gender marker on their official documents.
New York-based Human Rights Watch welcomed the legislation in a statement Monday, but said the requirement for surgical procedures as a precondition to legal gender recognition “imposes a burden on transgender people that is at odds with their fundamental rights to be recognized in the gender with which they identify.”
It noted that many Vietnamese transgender people have chosen not to have their body operated upon and that, under the new provisions of the law, they would still be unable to change their gender marker.
“The Vietnamese government has taken a small, but significant step forward on the path of recognizing transgender rights for which it should be commended,” said Boris Dittrich, advocacy director in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights program at Human Rights Watch.
“But Vietnam should also allow transgender people who do not wish to undergo surgery to have their preferred gender legally recognized.”
The group cited the Yogyakarta Principles—a codification of existing international law in relation to the rights of LGBT people—which says countries should consider measures that allow all people to define their own gender identity, without the requirement for surgery.
“Transgender people in Vietnam should have the right to decide for themselves who they are,” Dittrich said.
The new law—a revision of Article 37 of Vietnam’s 2005 Civil Code and Decree No. 88/2008/ND-CP—was approved last week by 282 of the National Assembly’s 366 lawmakers and is expected to come into effect on Jan. 1, 2017.
Under the former law, Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) was prohibited for transgender people and only permitted for intersex people. Details about the surgery required for gender recognition will be published in additional legislation, sometime in 2016.
Reaction to law
Reaction to the legislation in Vietnam has been mixed.
Nguyen Thi Ba, a resident of the Cuu Long area of southern Vietnam’s Mekong Delta recently told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that she was frightened by what the new law would mean for the country’s conventional family structure.
“As a parent, I feel sad … because the Vietnamese people are not familiar with this and believe it goes against our tradition,” she said.
“What will happen to the third and fourth generations? Will they have children using in vitro fertilization … I don’t agree with this law and the kind of marriage [that will result from legal recognition of transgender people who have undergone SRS].”
A homosexual man in Ho Chi Minh City, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, welcomed the law allowing SRS in Vietnam, but echoed concerns about the procedure being a prerequisite for legal gender identification in the country.
“There are many homosexual people in almost every city of Vietnam, from north to south, while transgender people only account for a small number,” he said.
“They have a desire to change their fate as they feel they were born in the wrong body, but they don’t have a large voice within the LGBT community.”
“[The lawmakers should know that] not everybody wants to have the operation.”
Last year, the National Assembly lifted the ban on same-sex marriages, but the government still doesn't recognize them.
There are an estimated 270,000 to 450,000 transgender people in Vietnam, which has a population of 90 million people.
Reported by Hoa Ai for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.