Transgender/transsexual (trans) people have a gender which is different to what was assigned to them at birth. Some trans people change their physical sex characteristics and some do not. A trans identity does not indicate sexual orientation, anatomy, or hormonal makeup; simply that their gender is different from what was assumed at their birth.
The term ‘transsexual’ was first popularised in the 1950s by the US-based sexologist Harry Benjamin. Although many people still refer to themselves or others as ‘transsexual’, many others prefer the term ‘transgender’ or ‘trans’.
Estimates of the numbers of transgender people in the New Zealand population are now available. In research undertaken with secondary school students in 2012, 1.2% of the 8,500 participants identified as ‘transgender’.
Day-to-day life can be difficult for transgender people. The Counting ourselves survey, conducted in 2019, showed that 67% of trans people had experienced discrimination at some point, of which 44% had experienced it in the last 12 months (compared to 17% of the general population). In school, 21% were bullied at least once a week, four times the rate of the general school population. The median income for trans people was half that for the general population.
Trans people often form strong communities and subcultures to support one another. Māori and Pasifika trans people have played a leading role in many of these communities. The fact that trans people from different generations and different cultures have diverse experiences and needs means that there is not just one ‘trans community’. Positive representations of trans people in the media have increased in recent years, including a lengthy stint for a trans character, depicted by a young trans actor, on New Zealand’s longest-running television soap opera, Shortland Street.
‘Transition’ is a term for the steps taken by some people to be recognised by others as their gender, rather than the gender assigned to them at birth. Transition may include social elements such as changing one's name, hair, or clothing, and medical treatments such as hormone therapy and sometimes surgeries. It may also include legally changing the sex marker on their birth certificate, passport, and other documents.
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
Historically, very limited funding was available to help people with transition, through a Ministry of Health funding pool. In the 2010s, public funding for genital reconstruction surgery was limited to three male-to-female and one female-to-male transition every two years. Applicants had to pay for initial consultations and assessments. Some people travelled overseas for surgery. Funding for genital reconstruction surgery was increased in 2019, but there continued to be a long waiting list, even for a first specialist appointment. The Ministry of Health has admitted that discrimination within the health system, as well as outside it, has prevented some people accessing gender-affirming surgery.
Well-known gender-diverse people
Carmen Rupe (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Hauā, Ngāti Heke-a-Wai) was one of 13 children in a King Country farming family. She became the first Māori drag-queen performer in the 1950s, and later opened a series of late-night coffee bars, brothels and a strip club. She ran for mayor of Wellington in 1977.
Georgina Beyer (Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Porou) was the first openly transgender mayor and member of Parliament in the world. Beyer was a sex worker in her early life, then moved into acting. She was elected to Carterton District Council in 1992, and in 1995 became mayor. She was the MP for Wairarapa from 1999 to 2007. She was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2020.
Ryan Kennedy is the author of f2m: the boy within (2010), a young adult novel about a young female-to-male transsexual person.
Jacquie Grant was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2018 for her work as a foster parent to more than 75 children. She was also a member of the Human Rights Review Tribunal and served two terms on the Grey District Council.