This Transgender Bodybuilder Is Crushing Barriers In Vietnam

A conservative country’s LGBTQ community is finally finding its voice.

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.

Read the rest of this story at Narratively

Narratively is a digital publication and creative studio focused on ordinary people with extraordinary stories, such as those of a mother and daughter who both went through gender transitions, and the unexpected way a mother's extravagant purchase helped her cope with the loss of her son.

Cover image: Vihn Dao

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