Breaking trans barriers one barbell at a time in Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City (AFP) - It feels strange, but a few times each year Vietnamese bodybuilder Kendy Nguyen must strap a bikini top over his rock-hard pecs and pretend for a day he is once again a woman.

He's not happy about the official rules that force him to compete with other women, but it's a small price to pay to live the rest of his life as a man, says Vietnam's first openly transgender competitive bodybuilder.

"It's weird to wear the uniform during competition, I don't really like it, but because (bodybuilding) is my passion, I accept it," said 28-year-old Kendy, wearing a black sleeveless shirt showing off his bulging biceps.

With more than 6,000 Facebook followers, an outspoken nature and Adonis-like physique, Kendy is breaking transgender barriers in communist Vietnam.

He's also changing what it means to be a male bodybuilder in a world awash with body oil, fake tans and protruding muscle veins, typically thought of as a boys club for only the most macho of men.

"I want to be a role model for transgender people, specifically female-to-male," Kendy told AFP, after busting out a quick workout at his local gym in Ho Chi Minh City.

"They have a lot of difficulties coming out to their families, and I want them to see themselves in a positive way by going to the gym."

He speaks from experience.

His parents rejected him when they found out he was trans, and they barely talk today.

Kendy fell into bodybuilding through some friends at the hotel where he worked after injuring himself doing karate.

His physical transformation accompanied his emotional transition, and he now trains six days a week -- twice a day when preparing for a competition.

He's raked in dozens of medals since he started competing in 2012, including a silver and a gold at last year's national championship.

But he insists he doesn't have an unfair advantage over the women he must compete with according to the organisers' strict rules.

"In bodybuilding, using hormones is normal for men and women, everyone uses them," he said.

- Looking up to Schwarzenegger -

The Vietnam Sports Administration officially bans any hormone use as doping, but admits it is hard to control, and said in the absence of any regulations on trans competitors Kendy has to compete according to his legal gender at birth.

"If Kendy legally changes his identity, then he could compete with men," said Do Dinh Khang, head of weightlifting and bodybuilding at the organisation.

The Vietnamese government is drafting a landmark law that could allow some trans people to legally change their gender, but it's not yet clear who will be eligible.

Kendy said he's not ready to have sex-reassignment surgery, currently not available in Vietnam.

It's also not clear whether the law -- which will take at least two years to pass -- will allow him to change his gender if he doesn't have the surgery.

Kendy isn't the first trans role model in Vietnam, where Nguyen Huong Giang shot to stardom on the ultra-popular Vietnam Idol -- one of several well-known trans singers in the country.

But female-to-male celebrities are not as well-known as their ultra-feminine counterparts, and there are few role models outside the entertainment industry.

"Kendy has proven that trans people have the freedom to choose their jobs like everybody else," said Luong The Huy, LGBT rights programme manager at the non-profit institute iSEE.

Kendy said he had few people to look up to while he was growing up trans in Vietnam, but doesn't hesitate when asked who his idol is today.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger," he said, flashing a broad smile.

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