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.
Types of gender diversity
In New Zealand, gender diversity includes:
- transsexual people, who have changed, or are in the process of changing, their physical sex to conform to their gender identity
- cross-dressers, who dress in ways considered socially appropriate for the ‘opposite’ gender – either occasionally or full-time
- intersex people, who are born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit the typical biological definitions of female or male, or with conditions that may result in a questioning of their biological sex later in life
- Māori and Pacific gender and sexual identities such as whakawahine, tangata ira tane and takatāpui (Māori), fa’afafine (Samoan), fakaleiti (Tongan), ‘akava’ine (Cook Islands), mahu (Hawaiian), vaka sa lewa lewa (Fijian), rae rae (Tahitian) and fiafifine (Niuean)
- drag queens and drag kings – men and women, respectively, who dress as the ‘opposite’ gender, usually only as a performance.
However, many individuals who fit the above descriptions do not identify themselves as transgender or gender-diverse.
Difficulties and visibility
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.