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Story: Gender diversity

Georgina Beyer made history in the 1990s as the world’s first transsexual mayor and member of Parliament. Transsexuals change their bodies to match their gender identities, fa’afafine are Samoan biological males who act in a number of female-gendered ways, and drag queens and kings simply dress in drag for a performance.

Story by Johanna Schmidt
Main image: Carmen and Georgina Beyer

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Gender-diverse and transgender people define themselves and behave in ways that are not expected of people with their biological sex. They include:

  • transsexuals, who may change their physical sex through hormones or surgery
  • fa’afafine, Samoan biological males who identify with females and behave in typically female ways
  • other Pacific and Māori gender and sexual identities such as fakaleiti (Tongan), ‘akava’ine (Cook Islands), and whakawahine, tangata ira tane and takatāpui (Māori)
  • cross-dressers, who dress like the other gender
  • intersex people, whose genitals or reproductive anatomy don’t fit traditional definitions of male or female.

Transsexuals

Transsexuals may have changed their birth sex from male to female or female to male. ‘Transitioning’ is the term for the steps they take to have a different gender identity. These may include:

  • medical recognition that they are transsexual
  • living as their preferred gender, sometimes including minor medical procedures such as removing facial hair
  • hormone therapy
  • surgery – enlarging or removing breasts, and reconstructing genitals.

Famous transsexuals include former mayor and member of Parliament Georgina Beyer, and 1970s coffee-bar and strip-club owner Carmen.

Fa’afafine

Fa’afafine (literally ‘in the manner of a woman’) have been part of Samoan communities for centuries. A boy who prefers feminine tasks may be recognised as a fa’afafine while young, and takes on feminine behaviours such as wearing women’s clothes and fulfilling women’s roles in the village. Life is harder for fa’afafine in New Zealand, where people are generally expected to be clearly either male or female.

Cross-dressers

Cross-dressers may wear the clothes of the other sex full-time or part-time. Drag queens and kings usually cross-dress just for a performance.

Intersex people

There are about 15 intersex conditions – most common is a person born with genitals that are neither clearly male nor female. Some children have surgery to make their genitals look more male or female, but today it is often argued that the individual should decide whether they want surgery, when they are older. Some intersex people never know that they have an intersex condition.

Discrimination and human rights

Transgender and intersex people have sometimes been subjected to insulting comments, abuse and even violence. They may struggle to find employment, and some have turned to sex work. Also, it can be difficult to get passports and birth certificates changed to fit their preferred gender.

Today, transgender people are protected from discrimination by the Human Rights Act 1993.

How to cite this page:

Johanna Schmidt, 'Gender diversity', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/gender-diversity (accessed 22 October 2017)

Story by Johanna Schmidt, published 5 May 2011, updated 20 Jul 2015