Some people have a strong and persistent desire to change their bodies to match their gender identities. They are commonly referred to as ‘transsexual’, although many do not accept this term since they feel it suggests that they have a medical problem.
The term ‘transsexual’ was first popularised in the 1950s by the US-based endocrinologist Harry Benjamin. Before this, patients who were born one sex but wished to be the other had been given therapy so they would accept their sex of birth. This proved unsuccessful, and Benjamin suggested instead changing people’s bodies to fit their gender identity.
Numbers of transsexuals
Estimates of the numbers of transsexuals in New Zealand suggest that three to 10 people per 1,000 are male-to-female, and one to three per 1,000 are female-to-male. However, some believe that there is approximately the same number of male-to-female and female-to-male transsexuals. They believe that male-to-females are more visible because it is less socially acceptable for them to wear women’s clothes than the reverse. Female-to-male transsexuals are also less likely to seek sex-change surgery.
‘Transitioning’ is a term for the steps taken by a transgender person in order to live in a gender identity different from their biological sex. The process of transitioning is usually as follows (although not everyone will go through every step, and some may do so in a different order):
- medical recognition that they are transsexual
- living as the preferred gender – sometimes including minor medical procedures such as the removal of facial hair for those living as women. The individual is usually required to live as their preferred gender for at least a year before more major (and irreversible) surgery is approved
- hormone therapy, so that hormone levels are more similar to those of the gender they are transitioning to. For those transitioning to female, results usually include the growth of breasts, softer skin and a more ‘womanly’ body shape. Those transitioning to male may experience deepening of the voice, facial hair and male pattern baldness
- surgery, which may include the removal or enlargement of breasts, and the reconstruction of genitals. Genital reconstruction surgery is usually more effective at constructing female genitals, both in terms of appearance and sexual functioning.
Becoming a man
As a child in the 1920s Mavis Huggins refused to play with dolls, enjoyed boys’ pastimes and was a powerful athlete. Around the age of 20 she noticed that her body was becoming more masculine and that she had a ‘great and irresistible desire’ to wear men’s clothing. A doctor she consulted told her that she was becoming a man. Her response was that ‘my heart leapt with joy... I had always had the secret longing to be a male, and the thought that I was actually a man made my senses reel.’1 Mavis took the name Peter Alexander. Peter dressed in smart suits, rode a motorbike, shaved regularly and planned to marry a young woman he met on a trip to Sydney.
Paying for transitioning
Most transgender people pay for their own counselling, assessments, hair removal and surgeries such as breast removal or augmentation, or the removal of testes. In the 2010s limited funding was available, through a Ministry of Health funding pool, for gender reassignment surgery for three male-to-female and one female-to-male transsexuals every two years. However, applicants had to fund initial consultations and assessments themselves. Some travelled overseas for surgery.
Transsexual people may face costs if they decide to relocate, either to find a location where they can be accepted or to start a new life in their preferred gender.
- New Zealand’s best-known transsexual, Carmen Rupe, was born one of 13 children on a Taumarunui farm. In the 1950s she became the first Māori drag-queen performer, and opened a series of coffee bars and a strip club. She ran for mayor of Wellington in 1977.
- Georgina Beyer was the first transsexual mayor and member of Parliament in the world. Beyer was a sex worker in her early life, then moved into acting. In 1992 she was elected to her local council in Carterton, and in 1995 became mayor. She was the MP for Wairarapa from 1999 to 2007.
- Ryan Kennedy is the author of f2m: the boy within (2010), a young adult novel about a young female-to-male transsexual.
- Jacquie Grant was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1998 for her work as a foster parent to more than 60 children. She is affectionately known as the ‘tranny granny’ of the West Coast.