Pam Corkery investigates the redefinition of gender identities
For years transgender and intersex people have lived in the shadows. Now they are increasingly being accepted for who they are, but, as Pam Corkery discovers, there’s still work to be done.
INVESTIGATING THE human rights status of transgender and intersex people in New Zealand is the saddest, most frustrating and humbling report I have ever worked on. There is no other way to introduce this overdue journey into the world of fellow citizens who don’t fit the dominant gender categories of male or female.
Recently the transition of Caitlyn Jenner from Bruce Jenner – a former Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete and father of some of the famous Kardashians – brought the issue of transgender to the fore. Soon to follow was Transparent, a television series about a father who transitions, and more transgender characters have begun to appear on TV series like Orange is the New Black and our very own Shortland Street.
So does this new awareness help? Certainly. But when I started talking to people for this story I quickly realised that life is still very difficult for transgender and intersex people.
Suicide is an indicative place to start. While there is no data available here, a study published in 2014 by the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide has shown that 41 per cent of transgender people try to kill themselves. Suicide attempts among trans men were a whopping 46 per cent and trans women, 42 per cent.
If this level of despair was registered by any other group it would be a headline-making medical crisis. But publically-funded mental health campaigns promoting, say, depression awareness never include trans or intersex people.
From public toilets to documentation to personal pronouns – and all basic human rights in between – the binary society of M and F shouts out that it doesn’t care about trans and intersex people.
“Sexual minorities are arguably one of the few remaining minority status groups where socially sanctioned bigotry is accepted, even encouraged.”
That was a heavy-duty conclusion from Te Pou (a national centre of mental health research, information and workforce development),
Jobs, education, housing, or medical care – there’s no part of life that isn’t touched by being trans.
which did a comprehensive needs assessment report to help inform the Health Ministry’s National Suicide Prevention Action Plan.
The reason most figures for gendervariant people are estimates is largely because the Statistics Department doesn’t include sexual diversity in the Census. There was a bit of a fanfare from the Department last year when it announced a ‘world first’ move in adding ‘gender diverse’ to ‘male’ and ‘female’ categories in a new gender-identity classification. There is, however, no obligation to implement this.
A 2006 inquiry by the
Human Rights Commission into discrimination against transgender people came up with some clear recommendations: increase the participation of trans people in decisions that affect them; strengthen the legal protections making discrimination against trans people unlawful; improve access to health services, including gender reassignment procedures; and simplify requirements for change of sex on birth certificates, passports and evidentiary documents. There was also an add-on recommendation that the rights of intersex people be given urgent attention because so many submitted to the inquiry.
Out of all those recommendations the only noticeable progress has been in the documentation area. For passports, there is the extra option of writing ‘X’ to indicate indeterminate gender. Gender can also be changed on birth certificates without always requiring that full gender reassignment surgery has taken place.
The problem with this breakthrough is that gender reassignment surgery ceased to be performed in New Zealand when the plastic surgeon on the special team retired in 2014. Since then no one seems interested in training up to replace him. Should a surgeon be found, there are only three operations every two years – a rate set more than 20 years ago. At that rate, the waiting list would still take up to 40 years to clear. There is talk of male-to-female surgery being referred overseas, but no figures. Female-to-male reassignments have always been done overseas, as they require extra special expertise.
Action on the rest of the Commission’s recommendations seems to be moving more slowly than a glacier.
It is worth noting the inquiry team found that being trans is not a lifestyle choice; it is simply one dimension of the rich diversity that is humanity. And that trans people, and subsequently intersex people, aren’t asking for extra treatment. They simply demand the same legislated rights and protections taken for granted by the rest of the community.
The inquiry found that being trans is not a lifestyle choice; it is simply one dimension of the rich diversity that is humanity.
EVERY EXPERT AND INSTITUTION I approached about the wellbeing of transgender and intersex people told me that first I must talk to Rainbow Youth. What workers!
Rainbow Youth (RY) was established 27 years ago, making it the oldest youth-led, youth-run organisation in New Zealand.
“We are here for those (up to age 28) who fall into the huge gap between male and female, gay and straight,” says National Manager Toni Duder.
Toni, 24, hails from Dargaville and came out as a lesbian when she was aged 15. She is part of a tightly run unit of four staff: three full-time workers and one part-time.
They do an eye-watering amount of service, including looking after those who drop in, running seven peer support groups in Auckland, Tauranga and Whangarei, and filling the requests for literature that pour in. In the past 18 months, 60,000 brochures have been sent to community groups around the country. Volunteers do the cleaning, the paperwork, and greet young people coming in. On average, five young people land at RY each day. As well as being a sort of gender-diverse citizens’ advice service, the drop-in centre also offers a social environment where the young can identify with each other in an alcohol-free, drug-free, nonsmoking environment.
“That connection is important. While lives have been saved by people telling their personal stories on YouTube, you can’t live on the internet,” says Toni.
One out of five of those who come in daily will change into clothes that wouldn’t be acceptable at home. The garments often come from The Community Wardrobe, which provides free, identity affirming outfits. One of the supporters of the onsite Community Wardrobe is Westlake Girls High School in Auckland.
“Westlake is great. Many schools come to us too late – when they are reacting to someone coming out, or to bullying – rather than before incidents build up.”
RY staff advise on sexuality guidelines for the Ministry of Education, as well as helping schools with gender-neutral bathrooms and school uniforms. “But bullying at school is a huge issue. We have to tell schools the problem is with the bullies, not the victim. If a young person is beaten up in a gender-neutral bathroom, that’s a violence problem, not a gender-diverse problem,” says Toni.
Approaches to RY also come from parents and grandparents who have noticed that their son or grandson loves wearing dresses, and from kindergarten and primary school teachers who may have observed a young boy acting in a feminine way.
“We say to let children be the experts of themselves. A seven-year-old, for instance, doesn’t need a label, and is often too young to recognise gender. We say, ‘Don’t put baggage on that kid.’”
And there is advice to family and whanau if a loved one has come out. “The best thing you can do is to commit to finding out all you can, and to know that it’s okay to grieve. It’s also okay to get stuff wrong. [Understanding] the list of new words and descriptions can be like memorising the dictionary.”
But just being fine with the news isn’t enough. “We need them to become active then, to share their new information with others. Get the conversation out there. We need recognition in the wider community. We have to tap into those who can help. Doctors, therapists, people who will provide job opportunities.”
It’s all done on slim resources. There are community grants and, in a recent development, $150,000 from the government to spread over three years. RY also gets donations from genderdiverse fellow travellers.
But it’s not enough. Toni would like to see people across the board donate. The website’s donation page shows a ‘$5 a week’ suggestion written on a coffee cup that would cost $5 to fill.
“We stand on the shoulders of those who went before us, with homosexual law reform. We can’t allow our doors to close,” Toni says.
Rainbow Youth: “Bullying is a huge issue.”
Emmy Rakete is a transfeminine sociology student and a spokesperson for No Pride In Prisons. NPIP is a prison abolition group with a focus on trans women being put at risk in male prisons.
The 23-year-old explains the increasing number of young, gender-diverse activists this way: “It’s like we’ve got nothing left to lose. We’re facing down the barrel of global financial meltdown, the collapse of the education system, and we don’t see a lot in our futures that’s not worth gambling.”
Emmy says of her coming out that, while not without pain, “it was nothing excitingly difficult. I just realised that, ah, that makes sense.”
She has solid family support, and has the resources to campaign for others. “Anger is a resource. I’ve got anger, so I’ve got stuff to give.”
Emmy knows of two trans women who have been raped while in the general wing of a men’s prison when they should have been in segregation at the very least. Or, as new protocols declare, a women’s prison should be offered.
“You can’t watch the news and see this without asking, why is this happening?”
She isn’t surprised that the number of trans women prisoners is disproportionate to the trans female population. “Poverty and violence… it’s inevitable.
“Trans people face almost insurmountable marginalisation when it comes to access to jobs, education, housing, or informed medical care. There’s no part of life that isn’t touched by being trans.
“But I think I’m an optimistic pessimist. Everything is terrible right now. But then 300 people turn up for a NPIP protest when the year before there was only a handful.”
Of her own activism, Emmy says, “There’s a great quote about generational politics; that ‘the only future of a generation is to be the preceding one’. I don’t stake too much of my politics on being a millennial. Mine is an outlook thing.”
EMMY RAKETE We’ve got nothing to lose
WELL-KNOWN TRANSGENDER PEOPLE rode her mobility scooter topless at the head of the Decade of the Divas float at the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. She became as much-loved in Sydney as she was here.
Transgender icon Carmen (1936-2011) worked as tirelessly against bigotry as she did making Wellington nightlife racier. Carmen is one of our history’s most colourful and controversial people.
Born in Taumarunui, and given the birth name Trevor Rupe, Carmen went first to Auckland, then to Wellington, doing drag performances after-hours while on compulsory military training.
She left for Sydney in the late 1950s and became Australia’s first Maori drag performer. Carmen worked with snakes, became a brothel madam, landed in Long Bay Prison a couple of times and declared it all made her stronger.
Back in Wellington in the 1970s, she became a vocal advocate for gay and transgender rights and for HIV/AIDS awareness. Carmen annoyed then Prime Minister Rob Muldoon enough to be called before the Privileges Committee. She had suggested there were gay and bisexual MPs. Carmen ran for the Wellington mayoralty on the far-sighted platforms of same-sex marriage and legalised brothels. As artist Graham Smith said of Carmen: “She used to come down Cuba Street looking like a Spanish galleon in full flight.”
The latter part of Carmen’s life was spent in Sydney. In 2008 she
Georgina Beyer, who also moved from show business to politics, called Carmen one of her role models. Born in Wellington, Georgina changed her name by deed poll before turning 16. She shifted to Sydney and into acting, where she achieved a respectable level of success. She was also a dancer and a drag queen performer.
On her return to Wellington, Georgina worked in the gay nightclub scene before shifting to Carterton to work on radio with Paul Henry. She then successfully ran for mayor, becoming the first transsexual mayor in the world.
She liked politics and campaigned for a seat in Parliament for the Labour Party. In 1999 Georgina Beyer became the world’s first transsexual MP.
Caitlyn Jenner is the most famous transgender person in the world. An exclusive interview with her in April last year drew more than 20 million viewers in the United States, before the international audience was counted. Caitlyn had built up for the interview with a two-programme special of Keeping up with the Kardashians: About Bruce. She has the Guinness World Record for the fastest gathering of a million Twitter followers. Her time: four hours and three minutes, surpassing Barack Obama, who accomplished the same feat in four hours and 52 minutes.
There’s not much that isn’t public knowledge about Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic decathlete. Her family life and transition are all reality TV information. She has had cosmetic surgery but not surgical gender reassignment, although isn’t ruling it out. She now identifies as asexual, which is a person not sexually attracted to others, or who has a lack of interest in sex.
Out of all the awards presented following her coming out, Caitlyn said her most cherished is the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage.
Carmen ran for the Wellington mayoralty on the far-sighted platforms of same-sex marriage and legalised brothels.