Gender diversity has existed throughout history and across cultures. The concept is based on a distinction between sex (the physical characteristics that identify individuals as male or female) and gender (an individual’s sense of being a man or a woman, or a combination of these). Gender-diverse people define themselves, and behave, in ways that are not expected of people with their biological sex. They are often described as ‘transgender’ or ‘trans’. Transgender people may be heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual.
There are many theories but no single explanation as to why transgender people do not fit within the ‘normal’ categories of sex and gender. Most of these people feel their gender identity is not something they can control, but an expression of their true selves.
In New Zealand, gender diversity includes:
However, many individuals who fit the above descriptions do not identify themselves as transgender or gender-diverse.
Because gender diversity was not considered acceptable in mainstream New Zealand society, transgender people tended to remain in their own communities and often felt isolated. A lack of accurate statistics on gender diversity has contributed to their low profile.
However, transgender communities were increasingly visible in the early 21st century. Gender diversity was often celebrated along with sexual diversity in gay-community events such as the Hero festival or the Big Gay Out.
Day-to-day life could still be difficult for transgender people. Those who were openly transgender sometimes encountered comments and verbal abuse – and even violence. Those who passed as their preferred gender, and who had not told others of their gender history, sometimes felt the need to conceal anything which could expose them as transgender.
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.
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):
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.
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.
Fa’afafine are Samoan biological males who behave in a range of feminine-gendered ways. They have been an integrated part of Samoan communities for centuries. ‘Fa’afafine’ translates as ‘in the manner of a woman’. There may be equivalent identities for females who adopt masculine social roles in Pacific cultures, but evidence is scarce.
Numbers of fa’afafine are unofficially estimated to be 500 in Samoa and 500 in New Zealand.
In many Pacific Island cultures, the custom of certain males dressing and behaving as females is long-established and well-recognised. As well as the Samoan fa’afafine, Pacific gender-diverse identities include fakaleiti in Tonga, mahu in Hawaii, mahu or rae rae in Tahiti, akava'ine or laelae in the Cook Islands, vaka sa lewa lewa in Fiji and fiafifine in Niue. However, fa’afafine are the only group who have been studied extensively.
In traditional Samoan contexts, a boy’s preference for feminine tasks will usually be recognised at an early age. After being acknowledged as fa’afafine, she will then adopt other feminine behaviours such as dressing as a woman, dancing the siva (a traditional dance usually performed wearing a feathered headdress), and fulfilling feminine roles within the village. Fa’afafine are accepted as feminine, but they may also undertake masculine tasks or fulfil men’s roles. Fa’afafine often remain in their family homes and care for their parents.
Because of Samoan culture’s strong base in the Christian church, and the moral panic that occurred in relation to HIV/AIDS, fa’afafine in modern Samoa are often marginalised. However, fa’afafine beauty pageants are very popular. They draw on the tradition of gaining social recognition through entertainment, while also providing a platform for performing femininity. The pageants raise funds for charities such as HIV/AIDS organisations or the local rest home.
Migrant Samoans often encounter difficulties while adjusting to life in New Zealand. However fa’afafine face the extra problem that the traditional western gender system does not easily recognise individuals who sit between men and women. In New Zealand, some fa’afafine try to conform to conventional expressions of masculinity, including dressing as men, taking up masculine occupations and having relationships with women. However, those who continue to identify as fa’afafine eventually discard this masculinity to varying degrees. Politically, New Zealand-based fa’afafine are strongly aligned with the gay community, although some find the gay context does not allow them to be really feminine.
Some fa’afafine use various feminising medical technologies, such as hormones that result in the growth of breasts. However, even those who undergo full genital reconstruction surgery are not seen as ‘real’ women in the Samoan community, as they cannot bear children. Some New Zealand-based fa’afafine choose to enact femininity but not ‘pass’ as women. Such gender ambivalence has become increasingly possible as a result of a growing acceptance of cultural diversity in New Zealand, and the creation of media specifically about fa’afafine.
Most migrant fa’afafine remain part of their Samoan families and communities in New Zealand. They also maintain networks with other fa’afafine and other transgender or queer communities. Fa’afafine have been regular participants in gay-pride festivals and parades. The biennial Love Life Fono (meeting), organised by the New Zealand AIDS Foundation since 2005, brings together leaders and members from the Pacific’s sexual-minority communities to discuss important issues.
Cross-dressers choose to dress in the clothes of the opposite sex. They tend not to use the term ‘transvestite’, as they feel it suggests that their behaviour results from a psychological problem. Cross-dressing is often an occasional behaviour for recreation, self-expression or sexual fantasy. It is not necessarily an indication of sexuality – many heterosexual men and women enjoy cross-dressing.
Some of the most highly visible cross-dressers are drag queens (men who dress as women) and drag kings (women dressed as men). These terms are generally applied to female- or male-impersonating performers, whether amateur or professional, since wearing ‘drag’ is theatrical and a form of entertainment. Drag queens and kings do not usually identify with, or attempt to pass as, the gender they adopt for performance. Instead their characters are deliberately unreal, flamboyant and highly coloured.
The tradition of drag queens and kings is strongest in the gay male and lesbian communities. Public events such as Wellington’s annual Gay and Lesbian Fair feature spectacular cross-dressed performers such as the male singing group the Glamazons, women in male-parody costumes, and takatāpui (gay, lesbian and transgender) kapa haka group Tiwhanawhana.
The term ‘intersex’ covers a range of people born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit typical definitions of ‘male’ and ‘female’. There are about 15 conditions that fit the definition of ‘intersex’. The one most commonly understood is a child born with genitalia that are not easily categorised as male or female. People may go through all or some of their lives without knowing they have an intersex condition. Those who do know typically identify themselves as either female or male – only a small proportion actually see themselves as intersex.
Mani Bruce Mitchell was born in 1953 with both a vagina and a small penis, and named Bruce. Her penis was surgically removed when she was eight years old. She lives as a woman, but acknowledges the male aspect of her identity by allowing her facial hair to remain. In 2003 a documentary based on her life, Yellow for hermaphrodites: Mani’s story, was screened on New Zealand television. Since then she has been the public face of intersex awareness, and in the 2010s was the executive director of the Intersex Trust Aotearoa New Zealand.
The proportion of intersex people in the population depends on which conditions are included, and whether the particular condition is noticed, but conservative estimates are one in 5,000. If all conditions are taken into account, the incidence could be as high as one in 100. Intersex Awareness New Zealand suggested that there were approximately 2,000 intersex people in New Zealand in the 2010s.
In the 1950s specialists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US, suggested that the psychological wellbeing of a child depended upon a stable gender identity, which should be fixed by 18 months of age. It was also assumed that the child’s body should fit with their gender. Those born with ‘ambiguous’ genitalia were given surgery so that their genitals more closely resembled those of a ‘true’ male or female – often without the parents being fully informed. In most instances the surgery was not medically necessary. Many people now argue that the surgery should have been delayed until the individual was old enough to decide themselves whether or not they wanted it. In some instances, surgical procedures on babies resulted in many follow-up surgeries being needed.
Research has shown that children who grow up with ambiguous genitalia, or who make their own decisions about surgery later in life do not, on average, fare worse than any other children. However, those who were subjected to early surgery and not informed about their condition often experience difficulties in later life. For example, some aspects of physical development may not occur as expected. Someone raised as a girl may not develop breasts as expected because their hormone levels are not typically female. While most support groups recommend raising an intersex child as one gender or the other, it is recognised that many may decide later in life that this gender is not right for them.
Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) can ‘virilise’ girl babies in the womb, so their genitalia appear male. When one New Zealand woman gave birth in the late 1970s, a delivery-room staff member announced, ‘It’s a boy!’, and then another said, ‘It’s a girl!’ ‘And then they went quiet,’ recalled the mother. ‘I had a look and said, “Is it a boy or a girl?”, and my doctor just said, “I don’t know.”’1 Tests showed that her baby was female, with CAH. The woman later had another baby who appeared clearly male, but was also found to be a girl with CAH. Both girls had surgery on their genitals to make them appear more female, while they were still babies.
The New Zealand-born psychologist and sexologist John Money pioneered theories of intersex identity and treatment during a career at Johns Hopkins University. He gained an international reputation for his work on intersexuality and invented the now widely used terms ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender role’. He became a highly controversial figure after one of his patients, whose penis was irreparably damaged during a medical procedure at the age of eight months, was raised as a girl on Money’s advice. The patient later committed suicide, and Money was accused of falsely reporting the case. However, some colleagues have said he made the best possible decision based on the available knowledge at that time.
Transgender people are protected from discrimination under the Human Rights Act 1993. In 2008 New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission released To be who I am, a report on an inquiry into discrimination experienced by transgender people.
It recommended that:
Many of the issues faced by transgender people result from difficulties in having legal documents altered to reflect their preferred gender. In New Zealand, the sex recorded on an individual’s birth certificate can be changed if they can provide medical evidence that they have ‘acquired a physical conformation that accords with their gender identity’.1 In the past, the Family Court interpreted this to mean that only those who had genital-reconstruction surgery could apply for a change of sex on a birth certificate. However, in June 2008, the Family Court ruled that full gender-reassignment surgeries are not always necessary to meet this legal threshold.
Transgender people wanting their New Zealand passports to record their preferred gender status can have an X, instead of M or F, in the sex field, even if their birth certificate has not been altered. They must provide a statutory declaration that they live as their preferred gender. Post-operative transsexuals can have the sex in their passports changed to their new sex (M or F, rather than X).
Sex is not shown on a driver’s licence, although it is recorded on the licence records. This means that if a name has been legally changed and a recent photo is used, the driver’s licence may relatively accurately represent an individual’s preferred gender.
In July 2015 Statistics New Zealand introduced a 'gender diverse' category as part of its official statistical standard for gender identity.
Finding employment can be difficult for transsexuals who do not readily ‘pass’ as their preferred gender, and for transgender people who do not wish to pass as one sex or the other. Transgender people may also face discrimination within the workplace, particularly if they transition while remaining in the same job. Employment was the most common area of discrimination identified in the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry, and the Department of Labour has developed factsheets for employers and employees.
Because of the difficulties transgender people have in finding ‘mainstream’ employment, some may take up sex work. However, transgender people also work in many other occupations.
Beyer, Georgina. Change for the better: the story of Georgina Beyer. Auckland: Random House, 1999.
Carmen. Carmen: my life: as told to Paul Martin. Auckland: Benton Ross, 1988.
Edwards, Hazel, and Ryan Kennedy. F2m: the boy within. Collingwood, Victoria: Ford Street Publishing, 2010.
Schmidt, Johanna. Migrating genders: Westernisation, migration, and Samoan fa’afafine. Oxford: Ashgate, 2010.
Swan, Rebecca. Assume nothing. Auckland: Boy Tiger Press, 2004.
Information from the Human Rights Commission about the 2008 Transgender Inquiry and ensuing action.
A New Zealand organisation that supports transgender people and their families.
A cross cultural and transgender led national organisation who assist transgender, intersex and takatāpui people.
Support for intersex people and their families, and information and training for organisations and professionals who work with intersex people.
A Samoan organisation set up to address issues relating to sexual and gender minorities in Samoa.
Tapatoru works to build networks among the Māori transgender community in Wellington.
The Human Rights Commission’s 2008 report on discrimination against transgender people in New Zealand (PDF, 1.4 MB).