Gender diversity has existed throughout history and across cultures. In societies where the mind and the body are seen as distinctly separate entities, the concept of gender diversity is often seen to be based on a distinction between sex (the physical characteristics that are used to identify individuals as male or female) and gender (an individual’s sense of being a man or a woman, or a combination of these, or sometimes neither of these). Cultures without this type of distinction between the mind and the body are more likely to see gender diversity as a part of the diversity of someone’s whole self.
Gender-diverse people define themselves, and behave, in ways that are not culturally expected of people with their physical sex characteristics. Gender identity is not something you can control, but an expression of who you are. Gender diversity is not a consequence of sexual orientation – gender-diverse people may be heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, or have any other sexual orientation.
The words gender-diverse people use to define themselves and their communities are flexible and continually changing over time. Some are specific to New Zealand and the Pacific or are understood differently in New Zealand than elsewhere. Older members of the community may prefer terms with which younger members are uncomfortable. The use of umbrella terms such as takatāpui, rainbow and LGBTIQ+ are attempts to include all people with diverse genders and sexualities, but again not everyone feels included in these terms. Some people choose to describe themselves as ‘they/them’ rather than using gender-specific pronouns, to express the non-binary nature of their identities.
Because gender-diverse people have not been universally accepted in mainstream New Zealand society, many have tended to remain in their own communities and they have often felt isolated. A historical lack of accurate statistics on gender diversity has contributed to the low profile of transgender and other gender-diverse people.
Types of gender diversity
In New Zealand, gender diversity includes:
- transgender people – a specific identity, but also an umbrella term to encompass all those who gender identity does not align with the sex assigned to them at birth
- transsexual people, who have changed, or are in the process of changing, their physical sex to conform to their gender identity
- drag queens, drag kings and cross-dressers, who often dress in ways considered socially appropriate for the ‘other’ gender, including as a performance. Public events such as Wellington’s annual Gay and Lesbian Fair often featured spectacular cross-dressed performers
- Māori and Pacific genders, such as whakawāhine, tangata ira tāne and irawhiti takatāpui (Māori), fa’afafine and fa’atama (Samoan), fakaleiti (Tongan), ‘akava’ine (Cook Islands), māhū (Hawaiian), vaka sa lewa lewa (Fijian), rae rae (Tahitian) and fiafifine (Niuean) – some of these terms are embraced by the community, while others are considered to be slurs in some contexts
- intersex people, who are born with variations of sex characteristics. Their reproductive or sexual anatomy does not fit the typical binary (either/or) definitions of female and male
- non-binary people – a range of identities that are not exclusively girls/women or boys/men, including (but not limited to) pangender, bigender, gender fluid, agender.
While all of these genders fit within the transgender category, many individuals do not identify with the terms ‘transgender’ or ‘gender-diverse’.