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.
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.”
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by Lorcan Lovett
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