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The Transgender Inquiry: New Zealand reacts

Sun 20 Jan 2008 In: Features View at Wayback View at NDHA

The Human Rights Commission's groundbreaking and world-first Transgender Inquiry report, which makes several recommendations to Government which would improve the safety and wellbeing of trans New Zealanders, has received much attention since its release on Friday - but not all of it positive. Top of the transgender phone tree: Georgina Beyer The report, compiled after consultations with 200 New Zealand transgender people aged between 11 and 70 years old, found that 80% of them had experienced discrimination. It noted: "Forms of discrimination and harassment ranged from low-level (avoidance and insults) to very severe (violent physical and sexual assaults)." Transgender former MP Georgina Beyer - herself a submitter into the inquiry - was the first point of call for several journalists, and she of course warmly welcomed the Commission's report. "What it would do is further assimilation into society of a marginalised group who tend to be forgotten, dismissed and given no particular importance," she told the NZPA. "The majority of them end up becoming burdens on society because of the way we treat them and here is an opportunity to give them tools by which they can integrate and become positive contributors." But she was not overly optimistic the proposals would be implemented, telling the NZ Herald: "Under a Labour Government you might have a chance, but I doubt it somehow... But my God, if we get a right-wing government in, there will be no way." PROBLEMS START YOUNG Young transgender peoples' issues such as bullying, ignorance, clothing worn at school and which toilets students were allowed to use, were all highlighted in the report. Post-Primary Teachers Association president Robin Duff said that while he welcomes the increasing awareness of gender identity in schools, the PPTA is aware that time and resources will be needed to support the transgender report's findings. "If schools are going to be required to do this sort of work and provide facilities to make it easier [for transgender students] then resourcing, preparation and professional development needs to be a focus from government - rather than leaving the schools to struggle on with it. "In an area where people are not exactly aware of the nature and extent of transgender issues, we need to be active rather than just leave it again to the goodwill of teachers," he said, adding that he hopes government resources will be provided to help implement the study's findings. "It's great to see recognition of these issues and it would be wonderful to see the Ministry step in to help guide schools in this area," he said. The Human Rights Commission study was also welcomed by the Green Party. Green MP Metiria Turei, in a press release advocating 'Human Rights for All Humans', asserted that "despite New Zealand society at large demonstrating progressive ideals, the rights of transgender and intersex people is one of the few areas where it is still legal to discriminate. The reality is that many communities, families and individuals in New Zealand have supported transgender and intersex people in overcoming the barriers that exist to achieving fulfilled and complete lives. It is worth noting that the report specifically does not cover intersex people. They, it appears, will have to wait until the impetus builds for a report of their own. Turei was concerned that "the extremist right continues to prop up arcane laws which reflect a reality no longer considered acceptable by most New Zealanders. These moral crusaders need to catch up with the rest of society who understand that human rights are about humanity, not about gender identity - just as we recognise that human rights are not about ethnicity. "Thankfully, those who deride the basic rights of everyone to enjoy a life free of hatred and discrimination do not represent mainstream New Zealand," she concluded. A VOICE FROM THE PAST One example of a vocal moral crusader unable to accept that life is complicated and difficult for people who're not like him is New Zealand First's Deputy Leader Peter Brown. Brown's press release 'Arthur or Martha? Let the Commission Decide!' predictably played to the conservative fringe of his party's elderly constituency. He labelled the Human Rights Commission report "nonsense", "a fringe wish list" and "another example of the creeping insanity of social and sexual engineering". He made clear New Zealand First will strongly oppose any attempts by the Labour government to adopt the report's recommendations. "Just because technology physically allows a person's sex to be changed, it does not mean that society should be forced to accept the results, or pay for them." On the issue of safety for transgender students, Brown confused transvestites, drag and transgenders, stating: "Of course children should feel safe, but they do not need pressure or encouragement from fringe liberals to wear drag to school. Further, we should not be condoning these liberal attempts to 'transgender' children either. Teenagers find it difficult enough to make basic decisions about life and should not be burdened further with having to choose between wearing male or female clothes. Brown also said it was disgraceful is that the commission has spent 18 months and "tens of thousands of dollars" studying "a non-issue that affects a tiny minority". His conclusion: "The commission should curb its obsession with sex and find something more useful to do with its time." THE 'BLACK FEMALE HORSE' OPTION! Brown's NZ First colleague Dail Jones was also scathing of the report, telling the NZ Herald: "If you're born a male, you stay a male. If you're born a female, you stay a female. If you want to start fiddling around and changing your body, that's a decision you make and you must bear the consequences." The suggestion that schools should allow children to change their gender identity - for example with the clothes and name they wear and use - is so far proving to be the most controversial issue raised by the report. The website invited discussion on the topic, and heard from several dismissive readers, many of them angry at the Labour Government. "You gotta be nuts," said one. "A woman trapped in a man's body or vice versa is so much nonsense," said another. "What next? Changing skin colour? Changing species? Oh but teacher, now I want to become a BLACK female horse." THE REALITY OF TRANS LIVES But the groundbreaking and not before time report also provided an opportunity for some brave transgender Kiwis to again tell their personal stories. As one trans man typed on "I myself know what it was like to identify as male in a girl's body. I was sent to a girl's school and I was tormented horribly because I used to try and wear my brother's uniform to school. I would try and stand to urinate. I knew in my primary years I should have been born a boy and it was darn hard back in the 70s to even contemplate changing gender... why do we have to make it so hard for our young?" And it's those tales of Kiwi transgender battlers which have been such gripping reads in the last 48 hours since the report was released. Christchurch Police Constable Sarah Lurajud told the NZ Herald how she lived as a male for 45 years - but knew she was a female trapped in a man's body. She spent $18,000 on laser treatment to remove hair from most of her body, and altogether counselling, hormone treatment, hair removal and surgery have cost her almost $80,000. "The process is a really, really tough time. When you do it at my age, you tear your life down, basically, and have to start all over again," she said. The Christchurch Press found 'a potbellied greenkeeper turned Glassons girl' called Rebeka, who took 54 years to pluck up the courage to tell people about her gender identity. She had cross-dressed privately at home, and feared her secret would one day be found out. Now she says "I feel relieved, happy and glad to be where I am. I regret not having done it 100 years ago." Given enough political will and community support, and with courage and the Human Rights Commission's independent and groundbreaking report to back them up, New Zealand's transgender citizens may finally be seeing a dim light at the end of a dark and forbidding tunnel that until now seemed to have no end. Matt Akersten and Jay Bennie - 20th January 2008    

Credit: Matt Akersten and Jay Bennie

First published: Sunday, 20th January 2008 - 8:50am

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