As Kendy Nguyen powers through his final deltoid flexes, it’s obvious he’s not your garden-variety athlete. Nguyen is jacked beyond belief. His chiselled body is dripping with fake tan the colour of golden Cheetos. His blue veins bulge out of his football-sized biceps, like a scene straight out of your neighbourhood CrossFit gym.
But something is clearly amiss at this local tournament in sizzling Ho Chi Minh City. His teeny-weeny black bikini barely covers his oil-glazed pecs. In fact, Nguyen is a record-breaking female-to-male transgender bodybuilder going head to head with women, a sweaty hulk among a host of female bodybuilders. That’s the sacrifice – his gender identity – he must make in order to compete at all.
The 29-year-old is the first professional transgender bodybuilder in socialist Vietnam. He is part of a growing crop of transgender gym rats in the tropical nation who are avoiding an invasive, risky sex reassignment surgery on the operating table in favour of a more “gradual” and “healthier” way of transitioning.
Bulking up through bodybuilding is cheaper, easier and more natural, says the sweat-drenched, inked-up Nguyen, as he takes a breather in between reps. In the months leading up to a competition, he usually hits the gym six days a week, five to six hours at a time, spending nearly every waking moment pumping iron and moulding his muscles to “look more manly”, like the Adonis of Greek myth.
Society has been more open than ever
Vietnamese bodybuilder Ly Duc says that Nguyen has become a sort of godfather for the trans community in Vietnam.
“As an athlete, Kendy is independent and active,” he said. “He can compete with any male if he wants to. He’s a hard-working role model for anyone, not just trans [bodybuilders].”
On any given week, Nguyen will get dozens of messages on Facebook from people seeking the same results and probing him for advice. “Society has been more open than ever,” Nguyen says.
He’s right. Whereas transgender rights have faltered in the rest of Asia, Vietnam has quickly flourished as an unlikely bastion for transgender equality. It wasn’t that long ago that the transgender identity wasn’t even officially recognised by the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam – and there’s no clear-cut way to describe transgenderism in Vietnamese. The only word that comes close, chuyen gioi, or converting gender, sounds too clinical.
Starting in 2017, sex reassignment surgery became legal and transgender folks were granted the right to reregister their official gender on identification papers to match with their preferred gender. But for Nguyen, these laws, albeit progressive, don’t go far enough. The Vietnam Bodybuilding Federation, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, will not allow him to take part in the men’s bodybuilding division, citing its own regulations. He’s bound to the assigned gender on his identification card, female, which he cannot change unless he has undergone sex reassignment surgery – which Nguyen says he has no desire to undertake, for now.
“In Vietnam, we don’t have such messy discussions about gender in sports because they only look at your papers and decide your gender based on your paper,” says Nguyen. So, although he undergoes a regular regime of fat-eviscerating drills and testosterone injections totalling around $7 every week to beef up his body and grow muscle mass, he nevertheless remains a female in the eyes of sports officials, his legal identity at odds with his chosen one.
In order to comply with competition rules, Nguyen must stop taking steroids a few months before each competition. So, how much testosterone is fair game for transgender athletes like Nguyen? Joanna Harper, a leading medical expert on transgender athletes at Providence Portland Medical Center in Oregon, knows this question all too well. She too is transgender, and a long-time competitive runner. According to a 2016 joint study Harper worked on, trans men, who biologically start from a place of substantial disadvantage, have physiques that are on average much smaller than those of cisgender men (who identify with the male gender they were born with).
“How much can this testosterone make up for the deficiencies that they started with?” Harper wonders. “I don’t know. It’s hard to say.” High-profile intersex and transgender athletes like Nguyen are forcing society to reconsider its long-established understanding of gender in sports from a more systematic, scientific lens.
With showcases like American Ninja Warrior and bodybuilding competitions gaining an increasingly high profile internationally, you don’t have to play a traditional ball and running sport anymore to be one of the world’s most elite athletes. Unlike soccer players who value light-footed agility or sumo wrestlers who rely on their own massive might, these bodybuilders don’t just train for endurance or even to see who can lift more weights. Rather, bodybuilding is all about looks – they are judged aesthetically, based on how well-built, impressive and glistening their body appears.
Medals are not what matters to me
The question is not if transgender athletes have advantages, says Harper – trans male athletes indubitably do have some over cisgender female athletes. The real issue is whether trans and cisgender athletes can “compete against one another in an equitable and meaningful fashion”, says Harper. Bodybuilding is a lot more subjective. Nguyen, for his part, doesn’t consider taking hormones to be an advantage because “everyone in bodybuilding uses steroids”. And, he added, “I don’t think I can go against guys. They’re much stronger than me.”
Nowadays, as Nguyen continues to transition from female to male, he’s crushing the competition. He’s been competing for seven years and has more than two dozen glimmering medals hanging in his home near the backpacker’s district of Ho Chi Minh City. Last year, he clinched two bronze medals at the National Fitness Championship.
Not too shabby, says Bui Xuan Truong, a national bodybuilding coach in Ho Chi Minh City who told Southeast Asia Globe that Nguyen is known for his “iron mind”. In fact, Nguyen is steadfast in his practices, peddling his method of transitioning as an all-organic, farm-raised, additive-free alternative to surgery.
Ho Chi Minh City feels like a steam bath. After yet another hardcore workout, Nguyen is guzzling ca phe sua da, iced coffee mixed with silky condensed milk. He talks of growing up in Hai Phong in northern Vietnam, where he noticed early on that he liked to “play with cars and fake guns, not dolls as other girls did”. At just three years old, he was already acutely aware of his evolving gender identity, but stayed tight-lipped. While strict communism has receded into Vietnam’s past, deep-rooted cultural norms still make up the bedrock of everyday society.
But when he finished high school, everything changed. He ditched the dresses, spoke in a deeper voice and cut off his long, flowing locks. His foray into competitive bodybuilding started when he fractured his arm doing karate. So he took to weightlifting instead. A bodybuilder at the gym took note of his work ethic and encouraged him to go pro. His ex-girlfriends have all fully supported him. His idol is Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But there’s no real money or glory in the Vietnam bodybuilding scene. He rakes in a salary of $330 from the Vietnam Bodybuilding Federation each month – barely enough to cover his rent and hormone supplements. Why the big push then? He’s more interested in the gritty, real stuff that transcends salaries and awards ceremonies and social media followers. At the end of the day, he just wants to be a “normal man”, and is hesitant to take on the weight of being a role model.
The spotlight can sear in an authoritarian country like Vietnam, where going against gender norms is still largely taboo. Vietnam has around 270,000 trans people, according to the Institute for Social, Economic and Environmental Studies (iSEE), although the organisation estimates the numbers may be much higher. The same stats reveal that transgender people face higher rates of discrimination than their gay, lesbian or bisexual counterparts.
Slowly, Nguyen is facing another coming out moment – as an activist. A landmark law that could give Vietnam’s transgender citizens the ability to legally change their official gender, regardless of sex reassignment surgery, is currently sitting on the parliamentary docket. But the draft is still “just a proposal”, says Nguyen. He’s not satisfied with patiently waiting for that watershed moment in Vietnam.
“It’s going to take time,” he admits. But he hopes to leverage his growing celebrity status to push the movement forward – and that means continued success. Nguyen is already looking forward to clinching the first prize at an upcoming national bodybuilding competition in the fall.
Immediately after finishing his condensed milk iced coffee, Nguyen is back on the weightlifting bench, hammering out a slew of shoulder presses, his favourite exercise. His goal: to cut 15kg in three months. That means a steady diet of boiled eggs, veggies and all the lean chicken and beef protein he can get. Nothing fried, greasy or sweet from now on.
Nguyen treats his cramped gym like his living room. He pounds out a gruelling set of shoulder presses with steely concentration.
“Medals are not what matters to me,” says Nguyen, his laser focus returning to the machine.
He’s done answering questions. He’s in the zone.