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The waiting game

Fri 1 Jun 2012 In: People View at NDHA

It’s no secret that the people who reside under the so-called 'transgender umbrella' are as varied as Auckland’s weather patterns. One group of pre- and post-op transsexual women is stepping out from under the brolly, and they aren’t fazed by being seen as separatists, saying they just want movement on the issue that most impacts them: the longer than long waiting list for gender reassignment surgery in this country. I met with two pre-op transsexual women and some of their post-op supporters at a downtown Auckland café. The meeting came about due to the frustration they are feeling at the years of waiting they are facing for surgery. They tell me those who can afford it go to Thailand. Those who can’t are left scrounging every penny, feeling like their lives are on hold and they are incomplete, at the mercy of a Government that doesn’t seem interested. The Ministry of Health funds gender reassignment surgery under its High Cost Treatment Pool, however there are 53 people on the waiting list and, according to the Ministry, an average waiting time of seven years. Simone Whitlow, 36, works for an Auckland finance company and began transitioning while working for her company five years ago. She has been on hormones for a little over two years. Yet to have surgery, she feels deformed. Simone Whitlow “For me personally it’s that I have a hard time trying to have a relationship with someone while the plumbing’s all messed up,” she explains. “I do tend to think of that way; you wouldn’t leave somebody with a cleft palate forever and a day, 26 years on a waiting list. Or with horrible burns maybe. And to me I guess that’s the thing: it’s not an elective surgery we’re asking for. It’s to fix what’s horribly wrong and allow us to have normal lives, normal being the key thing I think.” Whitlow says while transitioning and beginning hormones makes you feel better and improves your life a thousand per cent, there is still an overriding feeling of incompleteness. “It’s definitely something that completes your life and allows you to move on, in terms of all the paperwork and everything, and emotionally,” she says of surgery. She has been on the waiting list since late last year and was recently informed of the seven year backlog. “But the more I hear from them, it’s not so much a seven year backlog, as much as these are the next seven years’ worth of people. But they say it will be a very long time, no specified amount, and there are 40-odd people ahead of me on the waiting list. So for every two years, it’s a long, long waiting list. It could be 25 years if every single person is truly in need of the operation and meets the guidelines. So it’s anyone’s guess: at least seven years, it could be 26,” Whitlow says. “I guess for me that’s the main issue really: the issue that it’s a long, long waiting list. And that actually when you’ve got a doctor that by all accounts is due to retire, and you’ve got the money there to actually get things moving along, you’d get three times as many through if you actually send us to Thailand. I think a lot of us on the list wouldn’t have any issue, we’d come up with the money come hell or high water, to fly ourselves there and back. “The surgery costs about $45,000 in New Zealand, but is about a third of that in Thailand." “To me that’s the issue in a nutshell,” Whitlow says. “The Government can get three times the productivity for the same money, and we are suffering. I’d like to see it ‘man up’ and look at that properly.” Whitlow thinks there is a lot of public confusion about what having surgery actually means to pre-op transsexuals, even within our own community. “The transgender groups, the wider umbrella, actually encompass a lot of cross-dressers, gender variant people and people who believes there are third gender, and all the rest that goes with that. It muddies the issue. To us it’s a very simple thing: we get operated on, we are then 100 per cent woman. We move on with life. So I think in the din of all that’s come from them and various other groups, glitter-bombing feminist icons and all the rest, we’ve been lost in there, is the key thing.” She says there are of course other transgender issues out there, but for her and others waiting for surgery, it is the biggest one. Rachael McGonigal, who is post-op and had her surgery overseas, chips in with her recent realisation that what makes transsexual women such as herself different from other transgender people is that she believes gender is binary, not that it’s on a spectrum. “As far as we’re concerned, we’re females,” she says. “We were always born females. We were just born in the wrong body.” “There is a very big anti-separatist movement going on, but it’s the transgender people, who tell us we’re under the transgender umbrella, whether we like it or not. And without trying to get into that politics, the point is that we are actually different, because they believe in the spectrum and we believe in the binary.” Health Minister Tony Ryall has recently replied to a request under the Official Information Act from McGonigal, in which she asked about funding and waiting times for gender reassignment surgery. He has transferred the request to the Ministry of Health. Jasmine Eastall So, politics and politicians aside for now, we come to Jasmine Eastall, a 28-year-old pre-op transsexual woman who says she is considering not even bothering trying to get on the waiting list for gender reassignment surgery, because it’s ridiculously long. “Technically I could just get any odd job out there and save 25 bucks a week, and get the surgery myself through Thailand.” Yet she feels like it’s something the Government should pay for, and she should have realistic access to. “It’s hard to explain but, you wake up every day and, it’s not something that you just think about on an occasion or monthly, or when something happens. It’s something you constantly think about, every time you shower, every time you go to the bathroom, every time you change, even every time you’re walking down the street and feel uncomfortable,” she explains. “It’s when you see other women, it’s when you come across relationships and try to meet someone you really like, it can be really daunting sometimes. As Simone was saying, it is a deformity to us. It’s something that we don’t want to be there. We feel it’s not our fault that it was there at birth. It’s like an accident. Like any accident really. Mother Nature makes mistakes too.”     Jacqui Stanford - 1st June 2012

Credit: Jacqui Stanford

First published: Friday, 1st June 2012 - 12:21pm

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