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Gender diversity

by Johanna Schmidt

Georgina Beyer made history in the 1990s as the world’s first transsexual mayor and member of Parliament. Transsexuals change their bodies to match their gender identities, fa’afafine are Samoan biological males who act in a number of female-gendered ways, and drag queens and kings cross-dress for a performance.

Defining gender diversity

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.


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.

Numbers of transsexuals

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):

  • medical recognition that they are transsexual
  • living as the preferred gender – sometimes including minor medical procedures such as the removal of facial hair for those living as women. The individual is usually required to live as their preferred gender for at least a year before more major (and irreversible) surgery is approved
  • hormone therapy, so that hormone levels are more similar to those of the gender they are transitioning to. For those transitioning to female, results usually include the growth of breasts, softer skin and a more ‘womanly’ body shape. Those transitioning to male may experience deepening of the voice, facial hair and male pattern baldness
  • surgery, which may include the removal or enlargement of breasts, and the reconstruction of genitals. Genital reconstruction surgery is usually more effective at constructing female genitals, both in terms of appearance and sexual functioning.

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

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.

Well-known transsexuals

  • New Zealand’s best-known transsexual, Carmen Rupe, was born one of 13 children on a Taumarunui farm. In the 1950s she became the first Māori drag-queen performer, and opened a series of coffee bars and a strip club. She ran for mayor of Wellington in 1977.
  • Georgina Beyer was the first transsexual mayor and member of Parliament in the world. Beyer was a sex worker in her early life, then moved into acting. In 1992 she was elected to her local council in Carterton, and in 1995 became mayor. She was the MP for Wairarapa from 1999 to 2007.
  • Ryan Kennedy is the author of f2m: the boy within (2010), a young adult novel about a young female-to-male transsexual.
  • Jacquie Grant was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1998 for her work as a foster parent to more than 60 children. She is affectionately known as the ‘tranny granny’ of the West Coast.
    • Quoted in Louise Joy Pearson, Men and masqueraders: cross-gendered identity and behaviour in New Zealand, 1906–1950. MA thesis, University of Otago, 2008, pp. 98–99 Back


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

Numbers of fa’afafine are unofficially estimated to be 500 in Samoa and 500 in New Zealand.

In the islands

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.

Fa’afafine in Samoa

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.

Fa’afafine in New Zealand

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.

Connections and support

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.

Well-known fa’afafine

  • Lindah LePou is a fashion designer and performer who has won numerous fashion awards.
  • Shigeyuki Kihara is a visual artist whose work has appeared in both national and international venues.
  • Fuimaona Karl Polotu-Endemann received the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001 for services to public health.
  • The animated television comedy bro’Town features a fa’afafine teacher. Two of the writers, Oscar Kightley and David Fane (who voices the teacher), also wrote the 1995 play A frigate bird sings, about a Samoan family in New Zealand, which had a fa’afafine as a central character.
  • Cindy Filo is Samoa’s most famous fa’afafine entertainer.

Cross-dressers, drag queens and kings

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.

Drag queens and drag kings

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.

Gay cross-dressing

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.

Well-known New Zealand cross-dressers

  • Amy Bock was a confidence trickster who sometimes dressed as a man to commit fraud. Posing as a wealthy sheep farmer named Percival Redwood, she married the daughter of her Otago landlady in 1909.
  • Lawyer Rob Moodie, a former police officer, university lecturer and secretary of the Police Association, has worn caftans and other unconventional clothes in public since the 1970s. In the early 2000s he changed his name by deed poll to Miss Alice and wore an Alice in wonderland dress. Moodie is heterosexual and married.
  • Country-singing lesbian sisters the Topp Twins (Jools and Lynda) perform part of their comedy routine dressed as men – Ken Moller, a sheep farmer, and his mate Ken Smythe, a ‘townie’.
  • Gareth Farr is an internationally known musician and composer who sometimes performs in drag as Lilith.
  • Timaru-born gay cabaret artist and drag queen Mika has developed an urban dance style combining Māori, Polynesian and European traditions.

Intersex people

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’s story

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.

Numbers of intersex people

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.

The history of treatment

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.

Outcomes for corrective surgery

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.

Boy or girl?

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.

John Money

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.

    • Quoted in Caren Wilton, ‘The third sex.’ Next, November 1997, p. 54. Back

Human rights and discrimination

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:

  • transgender people be able to effectively participate in decisions that affect them
  • the discrimination and marginalisation experienced by transgender people be reduced
  • access to public health services and treatment be improved for transgender people
  • the requirements for changing sex details on official documents be simplified.

Legal recognition

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.

    • To be who I am: report of the inquiry into discrimination experienced by transgender people. Kia noho au ki tōku anō ao: he pūrongo mō te uiuitanga mō aukatitanga e pāngia ana e ngā tāngata whakawhitiira. Auckland: Human Rights Commission, 2008, p. 69. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Johanna Schmidt, 'Gender diversity', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 September 2020)

He kōrero nā Johanna Schmidt, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jul 2015