Christophe at 14 in his hometown Alsace, east of France. Photo courtesy of Celine Audebeau
In a two-storey villa near the West Lake in Hanoi, Celine Audebeau lives with her two Persian cats, keeps fit with yoga and swimming, and goes on dates via the Tinder dating app.
Like most women, Celine loves shopping and trying out new cooking recipes.
She was born 53 years go, but only began living a real life about 15 months ago.
This is her strange but uplifting story.
In 1964, a boy born in Asace, east of France, was named Christophe Audebeau. When he was 5-6 years old, he began noticing something strange.
“I was attracted more to my sister’s clothes than what I had to wear.”
Christophe never dared to bare his confusion. At school, girls wore dresses and boys wore pants. Rest rooms were painted pink for females and blue for males. He knew these were the rules of society he had to follow.
When he was 10, his family collected clothes to donate to immigrants. Every night, after everyone was asleep, Christophe sneaked out and searched for a dress among the old clothes.
“It was only a few minutes, but it was a moment of freedom,” feeling the garment embraces his body, the soft, slippery texture on his skin.
Throughout his teenage years, Christophe took intensive training in volleyball, swimming, running and marathon. “Because that feeling was always there in my brain, sports became the only means for me to escape. I wanted to run away, and the escape lasted only for a short period of time.”
Love, suicidal thoughts
When he was 18, Christophe met and fell in love with Annie, a graceful woman with brown hair, warm voice and a bright smile. But in the 12 years that they lived together, Christophe never shared his secret gender battle. The couple separated after Christophe’s prolonged struggle with depression. Therapy sessions could not help him understand what was happening to him. He began having suicidal thoughts.
Looking back, Celine’s feels what she felt for Annie was not romantic love but something that stemmed from the desire to become a beautiful woman like her.
At 32, fate gifted Christophe a woman who accepted part of who he was. He decided to confess to Jeannet, a woman 14 years older than him, his feminine side.
“She accepted,” Celine said. “Every day I wore suits to work, but when the door closed, I was free to wear female clothes without being judged.”
A year after they began dating, Christophe proposed to his girlfriend. Before accepting, Jeannet asked her fiancé if he was homosexual.
He responded with a definite “no”.
Christophe was not lying.
Christophe (L) caught a 86-kilogram fish. Photo courtesy of Celine Audebeau
According to ICS, an organization that protects and promotes the rights of homosexuals, bisexuals and transgendered people in Vietnam, homosexuals are people who are sexually and emotionally attracted to people of the same sex; they do not wish to change their biological sex.
On the other hand, transgender are people who have thoughts and feelings that are not connected to their biological sex.
However, Christophe was convinced then that he was “the only one on the planet feeling this.”
As time passed, Christophe thought he could alleviate his inner woman. His professional career progressed. He became the manager of a pontoon boat factory in Shanghai, China; then moved to Vietnam as director of a life-vest manufacturing company in Hanoi, Vietnam.
On the outside, Christophe was a successful businessman, a husband and a father, but within, he struggled with internal depression and frustration.
Depression pushed Christophe into alcohol abuse and smoking. He became obese, with his weight reaching 106 kilograms. Eventually, Christophe had to return to France for surgery on his enlarged high thyroid gland. After the complicated surgery, he suffered internal hemorrhage and his condition became critical. On the way to the emergency room, his heart stopped.
“I remember very clearly that when I let out my last breath, I thought I would leave this world without living for a moment as I wanted, as a woman.”
Timely medical attention brought him back to life, and Christophe felt that God had given him a second chance, a second life.
In 2015, Christophe’s lie began to unravel.
After years of doubt and frustration, he started finding answers to his bafflement about his own identity.
In the past, many scholars had thought of the transgender phenomenon as a curable disease. However in June 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) declassified transgender as a mental disorder in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Health Related Diseases (ICD).
“Any transgendered person sent to psychiatrists by their family has the right to ask the doctors to diagnose their ‘disease’ based on the new classification”, said Chu Thanh Ha, an activist working for the rights of transgendered people.
Christophe found explanations in psychology books. He realized that he “has a strong and continuous awareness of cross-gender identification, desires to become a person with a different sex, and at the same time, “constantly feels uncomfortable with the innate sex”.
There was no cure for this condition, but there was a solution: hormone therapy. Christophe started taking male hormone blockers and female hormone boosters.
“My breasts grew quickly,” and his weight dropped 30 kilograms.
Jeannet had seen Christophe in female clothes in their house throughout the life they shared, so she calmly accepted Christophe’s decision to use the hormone.
But when Christophe dressed like a woman to go out for dinner or a concert, Jeannet loathed it. She was afraid that someone would see her husband in a dress outside the house. She shortened her stay with Christophe in Hanoi; at times, she only lived with him for three months in a year.
After using hormones for two years, Christophe decided to go in for surgery.
“If you have lived more than 50 years in a male body, why can’t you live with it for the rest of your life?” Jeannet asked him in tears.
But Christophe decided he could not play two simultaneous roles. “I have had to sacrifice myself for others. Now I have to live my life, I can be selfish.”
Just a few days before his flight to Bangkok for the surgery, Jeannet left Christophe in Hanoi and returned to France.
“I married a man, but now you are becoming a woman. Being with you as a woman in Vietnam and in our house, it was fine. Being with you in France and in public, it is impossible. I cannot do it.”
“Finally, she can look into the mirror and see her true self. Celine has been waiting for years to get to see the world!”
These are the first lines in the diary that Celine Audebeau wrote after undergoing a seven-hour genital mutilation surgery in June 2017 that also removed her Adam’s apple.
From June to August 2017, she underwent an additional three surgeries to make her facial features more elegant and feminine. These cost her $30,000.
“After the gender reassignment surgery, body features of transgender people become more feminine or masculine, and they are less likely to face social prejudices,” said Sutin Khobunsongserm, a doctor with the Preecha Surgery private hospital in Bangkok, who conducted Celine’s facial orthopaedic surgery, wrote to VnExpress via email.
Celine before and after surgery in Thailand. Photo courtesy of Celine Audebeau
Celine even took up voice therapy at $75 per hour, understanding that mere looks do not complete a woman, she had to become one from within.
“The voice is very important. Imagine that you wear an elegant dress to a restaurant but the waiter still calls you ‘sir’,” said Tiphaine De Torcy, Celine’s voice trainer for 18 months.
Despite her constant efforts to gain recognition as a woman, Celine was still a woman by law. Returning after every surgery in Thailand, Celine hurried to the airport rest room, removed her makeup and dressed in men’s clothes. “I made a really badass face when I presented myself before the immigration official.”
“Due to legal constraints, transgender people face many difficulties in exercising basic human rights, such as freedom of movement,” said Dinh Thi Thu Thuy, a specialist in the Legal Department of Vietnam’s Ministry of Health.
“When taking flights, you need to show your identity card or passport. The immigration official will see one person in the document, but another person in real life,” Thuy noted.
Thuy said a law was needed to provide transgender people the ability to live and move freely.
Under the provisions of the 2005 Civil Code on sex reassignment, Vietnamese law only allows an individual to re-determine gender identity in cases where “the gender of such person is subject to a congenital defect or has not yet been accurately formed and requires medical intervention in order to clearly identify the gender.”
Gender reassignment for people whose gender has already been identified is prohibited. At present, there are no transgender people in Vietnam who’ve changed their gender in legal documents.
Unlike Vietnam, France has recognized transgender people. “I had to go to court in France to change M (male) to F (female) on my passport.” Celine said, adding the task took her a year of travelling back and forth between two countries.
She believes that she is the first transgender person living in Vietnam who has been legally admitted. All stocks under the name of Christophe has been changed to Celine. The manager of the company is no longer a man. The leadership has been passed to a woman.
On the first day of work, Celine was worried about the reaction of her colleagues, since they had been accustomed to a male manager.
The staff, however, welcomed her home with a cozy party. Some people even cried because they thought that Celine had suffered for a long time. “Must say she is very brave,” said the driver who picks her every day.
Celine is not in a serious relationship with any man, but she has been very active in dating. Her partners would never realize she had been a transgender once. Once, a man asked her about her children. “She is living with her mother in France,” she replied. And he asked in astonishment, “Then who are you to her?”
But these experiences don’t faze Celine.
With a big smile on her face, she said: “I’ve never been happy like this. I’m living to compensate for the years I have missed.”
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