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.
In New Zealand, gender diversity includes:
While all of these genders fit within the transgender category, many individuals do not identify with the terms ‘transgender’ or ‘gender-diverse’.
A landmark case occurred in 1966 when the police charged Carmen Rupe with ‘behaving in an offensive manner in a public place’ after they found her dressed as a woman. The judge found that it was not against the law for men to dress as women. It was an important case for all trans women and Carmen never dressed as a man again. Since the 1970s many forms of gender diversity have been visible and celebrated at gay and lesbian community events such as Auckland’s Hero Festival and Big Gay Out. Gender-diverse people have become increasingly visible in the early 21st century.
In 2019, Counting ourselves, a national survey of the health and wellbeing of trans, gender-diverse and non-binary people living in New Zealand, found that a very high proportion of the community experienced mental health issues. These issues largely resulted from the discrimination and marginalisation trans and non-binary people experienced, with many respondents reporting that they had been bullied or made to feel uncomfortable at school, on the sports field or in the workplace. Many reported facing significant issues and delays accessing gender-confirming healthcare. Almost 40% of transgender and non-binary people surveyed had received threatening messages on social media, and over 80% had the wrong gender on their birth certificate.
Activism amongst the gender-diverse community has increased in recent years. Agender, a nationwide transgender support group, has worked since 1996 to improve the acceptance of trans people. In 2017 the group expressed its frustration at the continued difficulties people found in obtaining gender-confirming surgery in New Zealand, which sometimes involved a decades-long wait.
Intersex Trust Aotearoa New Zealand (ITANZ) is a national organisation which provides information to intersex people and their families, and campaigns to promote acceptance and to end surgeries on intersex infants.
Gender Minorities Aotearoa is a nationwide transgender organisation which is run by and for transgender people, and operates on a kaupapa Māori public health framework. It offers information, advocacy, and support for all transgender people. It has campaigned for the legal rights of irawhiti takatāpui, transgender and intersex people, particularly in relation to birth certificates and healthcare.
The Professional Association for Transgender Health Aotearoa (PATHA) was established in 2019 as an interdisciplinary professional organisation working to promote the health, wellbeing and rights of transgender people. It is led by both transgender and non-transgender health workers.
The advocacy group People Against Prisons Aotearoa was set up in 2015 in response to the conditions experienced by trans people in prisons.
The needs of trans people were increasingly recognised by other groups, such as the New Zealand Post Primary Teachers’ Association. In 2017 the PPTA published a report on sexual and gender diversity which recommended, among other things, gender-neutral school toilets and uniforms.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are a range of Māori and Pasifika gender identities that do not necessarily conform with Western models. The traditional Māori term ‘takatāpui’, which originally referred to a close companion of the same sex, fell out of use for many decades, but since the 1980s has been reclaimed as an inclusive term used by gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and intersex Māori women and men. It is a term that encompasses Māori spirituality and culture as well as sexuality.
Those who were born with the wairua (spirit) of a gender different to the one they were assigned at birth may call themselves ‘irawhiti’ (with a gender that changes or is associated with change), ‘whakawāhine’ (creating or becoming a woman), ‘tangata ira tāne’(a person with the spirit or gender of a man), or one of a number of other terms. The contemporary te reo Māori word for transgender people is ‘irawhiti’. This can be used by transgender women, transgender men, and those with non-binary genders. ‘Ira kore’ is the term used by those who don’t identify with any gender.
Transgender people have traditionally been an accepted part of Māori and Pasifika societies. In modern times, trans people in some Pacific countries have been able to change their gender on legal documents and access gender-affirming healthcare, but in some countries acceptance does not extend to legal protections.
As well as Samoan fa’afāfine and fa’atama, Pacific gender-diverse identities include fakaleiti in Tonga, māhū in Hawaii, māhū or rae rae in Tahiti, akava'ine or laelae in Cook Islands, vaka sa lewa lewa in Fiji and fiafifine in Niue. Some of these terms have been used as slurs and are still being reclaimed, and therefore may be considered offensive. Others have firmly positive associations.
Elizabeth Kerekere completed interviews for her PhD with trans people who identified with the takatāpui identity, and their whānau members. One Ngāti Kuri rangatahi told her: 'Takatāpui means that first and foremost, I’m Māori. Then I’m everything else but together I am everything I am. I am queer, I am Māori and I am tangata ira tane [a trans man]. And I have this entire community backing me up whenever I use that identity.'1
Since 2019, Statistics New Zealand has enabled takatāpui to identify themselves as such when filling in household surveys.
In Samoa, fa’afāfine are people who were assigned male at birth and who are feminine in varying ways. Many, but not all, are women. Fa’afāfine have been an integrated part of Samoan communities for centuries. The term ‘fa’afafine’ translates as ‘in the manner of a woman’. Fa’atama – men who were assigned female at birth – have much less visibility, with the first public gathering of fa’atama held in Samoa in 2017.
In traditional Samoan contexts, preference for feminine tasks by a child thought to be a boy will usually be recognised at an early age. After being acknowledged as fa’afafine, the child is likely to transition – including wearing women’s clothing, dancing the siva (a traditional dance usually performed wearing a feathered headdress), and fulfilling feminine roles within the village. Fa’afāfine are accepted as women in many contexts, but they may also undertake masculine tasks or fulfil men’s roles. Fa’afāfine often remain in their family homes and care for their parents.
Because of Samoan culture’s strong base in the Christian church, fa’afāfine in modern Samoa can be marginalised. However, fa’afāfine beauty pageants are very popular. These draw on the tradition of gaining social recognition through entertainment, while also providing a way to raise funds for community organisations such as those combating HIV/AIDS or running the local rest home.
Migrant Samoans often encounter difficulties while adjusting to life in New Zealand. Fa’afāfine can experience additional problems because Western gender systems do not easily recognise transgender women, and particularly transgender women who also perform tasks typically associated with men. In New Zealand, some fa’afāfine 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 are likely to eventually discard this masculinity to varying degrees.
Some fa’afāfine access gender-affirming healthcare, such as hormones that result in the growth of breasts. Some New Zealand-based fa’afāfine choose to enact femininity but not identify as or be read as women. Non-binary identities and gender ambivalence have become increasingly possible as a result of growing acceptance of cultural and gender diversity in New Zealand, and the creation of media specifically about fa’afāfine.
Most migrant fa’afāfine remain part of their Samoan families and communities in New Zealand. They also maintain networks with fa’afāfine and other transgender or rainbow communities. Fa’afāfine have been regular participants in rainbow-pride festivals and parades. The Love Life Fono (meeting), organised by the New Zealand AIDS Foundation since 2005, brings together leaders and members from Pasifika sexual-orientation and gender-minority communities to discuss important issues.
The concept of ‘diverse sex development’ is more commonly known as ‘intersex’ and covers a range of people born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit typical Western definitions of ‘male’ and ‘female’. There are over 40 variations of sex characteristics which 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 live their lives without knowing they have variations in their sex characteristics. Those who do know typically identify as either female or male – only a small proportion actually see themselves as intersex.
The medical community shifted to using the term ‘disorders of sex development’, but this term is problematic as it implies that difference is a medical problem. The terms ‘diverse sex development’ or ‘variations of sex characteristics’ are often preferred, allowing intersex bodies to be seen as normal manifestations of physical diversity.
Mani Bruce Mitchell (they/them/Mx) identifies as intersex, non-binary and queer. Born in 1953 in rural New Zealand, Mani was assigned male as a baby, and subjected to a number of significant surgeries as a child. Mani decided to live openly as an intersex person in 1996, and has since been the public face of the intersex community in New Zealand. In 2003 a documentary based on Mani’s life, Yellow for hermaphrodites: Mani’s story, was screened on New Zealand television. Mani trained as a teacher and counsellor, and from the 2010s was executive director of the Intersex Trust Aotearoa New Zealand.
The proportion of intersex people in the population depends on which variations of sex characteristics are included, and whether a specific variation is noticed, but conservative estimates are one in 5,000. If all variations of sex characteristics from birth are taken into account, the proportion could be as high as one in 100. In the 2010s, Intersex Trust Aotearoa New Zealand suggested that there were approximately 2,000 intersex people in New Zealand. In 2021, Statistics New Zealand began a project to improve the gathering of statistical information about intersex and gender-diverse communities, with the assistance of Intersex Trust Aotearoa New Zealand.
In the 1950s, specialists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, suggested that the psychological wellbeing of a child depended upon a stable gender identity, which should be fixed by the age of 18 months. It was also assumed that the child’s body should fit their gender. Those born with ‘ambiguous’ genitalia were given surgery so that their genitals more closely fitted into the category ‘male’ or ‘female’– often without the parents being fully informed, and always without the infant’s consent. In most instances, this surgery was not medically necessary. In some cases, surgical procedures on babies resulted in many follow-up surgeries being needed. Many people, including many intersex people who were given surgery as children, now argue that the surgery should have been delayed until the individual was old enough to decide for themselves whether they wanted it.
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 other children. However, those who were subjected to early surgery and were not informed about their sex variations 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 because their hormone levels are not typically female. The support group Intersex Awareness New Zealand has campaigned against surgery being carried out on children with sex variations who are too young to provide informed consent.
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 his 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’. Money 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 on Money’s advice given surgery to remove his testicles and raised as a girl. Money made the child and his twin brother perform ‘sex rehearsal play’ and have ‘genital inspections’. The patient later died by suicide, as did his twin two years later. Money was accused of having falsely reported that the case was going well.
Members of the gender-diverse and transgender community continue to face discrimination within society and in the law. 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:
Between 2008 and 2019, the Human Rights Commission received almost 2,000 complaints on the grounds of sex (including gender identity and sex characteristics). Of those, 212 were made by trans, gender-diverse, or intersex people.
The Commission’s subsequent 2020 report, PRISM, based on consultation with members of the gender-diverse community, highlighted important human rights issues that still remain unresolved. The community was particularly concerned about the wording of the Human Rights Act 1993, which did not explicitly provide legal protection from discrimination with regards to gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics. Other concerns raised by the community included:
Many of the issues faced by transgender people result from difficulties in having legal documents updated to reflect their gender.
Transgender people can make a statutory declaration to have their passports changed to reflect their gender, or to have an ‘X’ (denoting gender-diverse), rather than ‘Male’ or ‘Female’.
Gender is not shown on a driver’s licence, although it is recorded. A form to make a statutory declaration of change of gender is available.
Good data collection is particularly important for gender-diverse communities, which often fare poorly in health, mental health and other well-being measures. In July 2015 Statistics New Zealand introduced a 'gender diverse' category as part of its official statistical standard for gender identity. However, this is not always understood in the same way by those providing and using the data. In 2020, Statistics New Zealand consulted the public on ways to improve future data collection on sex and gender diversity by taking account of diverse cultural understandings, while also being accurate, inclusive and meeting information needs.
In New Zealand, the sex recorded on an individual’s birth certificate can be changed only if they can provide medical evidence that they have ‘made permanent medical changes’.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 genital reconstruction surgeries were not always necessary to meet this legal threshold. In 2020, the Human Rights Commission urged a change in legislation to allow changes to birth certificates on the basis of statutory declaration without meeting medical thresholds, and without the involvement of the Family Court. It also recommended that people be allowed to record a non-binary gender identity on their birth certificates.
The Counting ourselves survey of trans and non-binary people in 2018 found higher levels of homelessness, discrimination, mental health issues, and danger from sexual violence than in the wider population. These outcomes were generally worse for members of Asian, Pasifika and Māori communities, and for disabled trans and non-binary people. Bullying on social media had an impact on many community members.
The care of the growing population of elderly people who identify as transsexual or transgender is another area of concern. Many people who have lived as openly transgender for many years feel that they cannot continue to be ‘out’ as transgender in aged-care facilities, for fear of being misunderstood and mistreated by those caring for them.
Finding employment can be difficult for transgender people – including non-binary people, who do not conform to gender norms, and for those who do not identify as a particular gender. Transgender people may also face discrimination in 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 2008 and 2020 inquiries, and generated the most complaints to the Commission by members of the gender-diverse community.
Trans people face difficulties accessing everyday sport and exercise opportunities, and some avoid physical activity because of concerns about how they may be treated. There are significant barriers for trans women seeking to compete in high-performance sport, and some of those they compete against resent their perceived physical advantages. In the early 2020s, sporting bodies continue to struggle to address this issue.
Beyer, Georgina. Change for the better: the story of Georgina Beyer. Auckland: Random House, 1999.
Edwards, Hazel, and Ryan Kennedy. F2m: the boy within. Collingwood, Victoria: Ford Street Publishing, 2010.
Kerekere, Elizabeth. ‘Part of the whānau: the emergence of takatāpui identity he whāriki takatāpui’, PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2017.
McMullin, Dan Taulapapa, and Yuki Kihara. Samoan queer lives. Auckland: Little Island Press, 2018.
Rupe, Carmen. Carmen: my life: as told to Paul Martin. Auckland: Benton Ross, 1988.
Schmidt, Johanna. Migrating genders: Westernisation, migration, and Samoan fa’afafine. Oxford: Ashgate, 2010.
Swan, Rebecca. Assume nothing. Auckland: Boy Tiger Press, 2004.
Townsend, Lynette. 'Rupe, Carmen Tione', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2018. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand