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Max's story: A Transgender Inquiry

Tue 8 Sep 2009 In: True Stories View at Wayback View at NDHA

"A lot of people who are trans experience gender dysmorphia," says Max, from across a table in one of Wellington's finest bagel establishments. "I don't personally feel that. Perhaps that has a lot to do with both my politics and the fact that I have been able to access transitional therapies easily. "For me, being trans is an identity, not an illness. I definitely see myself as genderqueer as opposed to a traditional transsexual. That said, I'm having surgery to remove my breasts."   Meet Max Max Prendergast, 23, is a genderqueer Maori Honours student, has a killer set of glasses frames, and loves his body. He began his transition this year, with the help of a doctor at Student Health. Max Prendergast "I just rocked up there, super nervous," he remembers. "It was probably the first time I'd said 'I'm trans' to a person in authority. It's not so bad saying it to friends or family, but a medical practitioner has power over you. So to have the courage to sit there and say it, that took me a while." Max is glad he did. "My GP was amazing, really friendly and amazing. She admitted to me that she'd never seen a trans student before and had no idea what to do, but in a way that was kind of great because we got to do it together." As part of his transition, Max has taken out a $16,000 loan to pay for his 'top chop', has outed himself to his employer, friends and family, and now faces the physical and emotional turmoil of what is essentially a second bout of puberty. He says he has it easy. "I haven't got any problems accessing trans therapy. I started hormones within two months of asking, and I'm having my chop surgery in another two months." Max has no illusions about the reasons for his easy transition. "I'm white. I come from a good family. I'm on my second degree, and I'm articulate. I've got a good job so I can manage my debt repayments." And the less fortunate, those who lack the resources to transition to their chosen gender? "If you're experiencing hardcore gender dysphoria," explains Max, "if you're really upset and depressed and you can't access hormone treatment or surgery, that's like every time you leave the house you do it without clothes, without shoes. That's what it feels like when we deny trans people the therapies that they need to transition."   An Invisible Minority In 2006, the Human Rights Commission launched the Transgender Inquiry, the world's first inquiry by a national human rights institution into the discrimination experienced by transgender people. The Human Right's Commission's Transgender Report This was an ambitious assignment on several levels. Not only was there no template for the commission to follow, but the trans community in New Zealand is incredibly diverse. Around 200 people made submissions over the 18 months of the Inquiry: farmers, business-people, tradespeople, academics, artists, sex workers, health professionals, economists, managers, parents and grand-parents. The people who made submissions referred to themselves as transgender, Male-to-Female (MtF) and Female-to-Male (FtM) transsexuals, cross-dressers, intersex, androgynous, genderqueer, takatāpui, fa'afafine, fakaleiti, whakawahine and others. A trans student at Victoria, who asked to remain anonymous, pointed out that the sexuality of trans people is equally varied. "You can look at it like a graph with two separate axes, gender and sexual orientation," she said. "You can be anywhere on that graph, anywhere you want. You can be as straight as they come, or completely genderless and asexual." Culture could be considered the third axis on the graph. Elizabeth Kerekere and Peri Te Wao help run the Tiwhanawhana Trust, and are acutely aware of the additional decisions faced by takatāpui, a reclaimed term used to describe gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and other genderqueer Māori. "One of the reasons we set up Tiwha-nawhana," explains Kerekere, "is the issue of takatāpui always having to choose between being Māori and following some quite strict roles in terms of male and female roles, particularly in performance and protocols. If you want to be queer and your gender is fluid, how do you express your sexual and gender identity inside the Maori community? "We try to get out and about so queer youth know there are takatāpui out there living their lives, and that we're available to help out." Te Wao knows that he and other takatāpui advocates are the minority. "It's a small community and hard to gauge, because we don't have that box that we can tick and identify as. Not all of the trans community would want to tick that box, even if they could." Kerekere agrees. "I find with younger people that, more and more, they're not wanting to identify as trans. They're more likely to call themselves genderqueer. They're not wanting to transition from the physical body they've got now but want to be able to present as the opposite sex without having to change it, to be a bit more fluid about it. It's quite difficult for older people to handle that."   Identifying Abuse After two years of research, the findings of the Transgender Inquiry were published as a 100-page report entitled 'To Be Who I Am/ Kia noho au ki toku ano ao'. The report identified four areas for urgent attention: increased participation of trans people in decisions that affect them; stronger legal protections against discrimination; improved access to health services; and simplified processes for change of sex on a birth certificate, passport and other documents. Max Many of the stories shared in the Inquiry report are harrowing. Trans youth reported being harassed by teachers and students and being afraid to ask for health or social support. Many trans people find it close to impossible to gain and keep employment, even when they possess all the appropriate skills, qualifications and experience. "One restaurant fired me because a customer complained I could give them AIDS by touching their plate (my HIV status is negative)," wrote one trans woman. "They didn't fire the out gay maitre d', however." "I have been punched in broad daylight on a busy street with no one coming to my aid," said another. "I have been called names and put up with staring and people talking about me behind my back, often within my hearing." Access to health services and barriers to changing sex and gender information on legal documents is often effectively one and the same. Until recently, the only way to ensure a sex change on a birth certificate was to have had full gender reassignment surgery. Not all trans people want to have surgery and, for those that do, the financial and medical barriers can be huge. Trans men felt particularly hard done by. "We can't get ['lower' surgery] done in New Zealand," wrote one, "most of us don't have the $50-$100K needed to do it overseas, it can involve as many as five risky operations with a variable outcome, and many of us will never choose to have it." Thankfully, the barriers to a sex change on a birth certificate have been relaxed. In a major victory for the Transgender Inquiry team and trans advocates, a June 2008 Family Court decision set a new precedent for interpretation of section 28 of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995. Each application will now be judged subjectively. The degree of permanent physical change required now depends on the circumstances of each applicant. Getting to the point of any permanent physical change is difficult. In somewhat of a vicious cycle, without documentation that matches their chosen gender, trans people are forced to out themselves each time they apply for a job or enrol in a tertiary course. Without an appropriate level of income, paying up to $300 per hour for a psych assessment may be an insurmountable barrier. Without a psych assessment, access to hormone therapy is difficult, and a positive Family Court ruling to get new documentation is unlikely.   Trans on Campus The Inquiry report identified discrimination in tertiary education as an area of concern. At least three trans people struggled to gain entry to tertiary courses due to staff concerns that they "wouldn't fit in" or would not cope with study while transitioning. Others complained about their inability to change their gender details on student records. After constant harassment, one trans student took bed-wetting medication so he wouldn't need to use the toilets at his polytechnic. Max Post-graduate student Max has not personally experienced problems as a trans person at Wellington's Victoria Uni. "As a whole, my experience has been quite positive. It depends on who you are and how confident you feel." He doesn't feel the need for a separate representative group for trans students. "I really don't think you can lump trans people together and provide one service for all. I think what we need to do is break down barriers across the board so that trans people can access services that they want to." Max admits that the curiosity of the general public can become a burden. "My body has become public property now that I'm transitioning. People think it's okay to come and ask me really personal questions. "I can see why people have that morbid curiosity, I did before I transitioned, but people expect you to answer their questions all the time. You're an ambassador, like it or not… I struggle with that quite a lot." Another trans student at Victoria, who preferred not be identified, liked the relative anonymity of campus life. "The university is a brilliant place to be because most people just don't care, so you can get on with being yourself."   Lifting the Burden The Assume Nothing project is an ongoing body of work about gender diversity founded by Auckland-based artist Rebecca Swan in 1995, published as a book in 2004, developed into a feature documentary by Kirsty MacDonald in 2008, and currently in the middle of a two-year exhibition tour of New Zealand galleries. Rebecca Swan Assume Nothing aims to reveal the "extraordinary and often very ordinary worlds" of the New Zealand trans community. One of the most famous images from the project features activist and educator Mani Bruce Mitchell, born with both male and female genital tissue, the words 'I am not a monster' scrawled across her chest. "I'm drawn to [gender diversity as a subject] because gender androgyny or fluidity is almost a spiritual thing for me," explains Swan, over the phone from Auckland. "I feel our souls are androgynous, so when somebody embodies both male and female elements, there is something quite magical about it for me. There are other reasons, political and everything else, but that's what sustains it for me." The Human Rights Commission offers three workshops in tandem with the exhibition, run by Transgender Inquiry project manager Jack Byrne as panel discussions with a focus on trans diversity, trans youth and trans creativity. Swan has embraced her partnership with the Commission. "One of the intents [of the exhibition] was to create social change around gender diversity and this felt like the most appropriate way to harness it." "I read the comments books every time we go to a gallery," she says. "The people who've been photographed and filmed are very open with the intimate details of their lives and, because of that, people really respond." Swan is awed by the generosity and perseverance of the trans and genderqueer participants in the exhibition. "They've got a strong motive to make a difference, and telling their stories or being photographed is a great way to do that. "I've been blown away by how generous and giving they are of themselves. Mani [Bruce Mitchell] comes to every show, every venue. She'll do anything to get other people talking about gender issues, and she'll be there on the front line because she has a strong motive for change." The stories shared by the Assume Nothing exhibition help to break stereo-types and lift the burden of 'morbid curiosity' often experienced by trans people who just want to get on with their lives. Swan, aware that not everyone is happy to be 'outed' in every city, checks with participants every time a show goes up.   A Work in Progress "We've seen huge leaps and bounds in the last 20 years," says Joanne Clarke, president of national support group Agender and host of radio show TransSister Radio. "People have started to stand up and be counted, and people can see that we're a diverse community with a lot of talent. Joanne Clark "There are so many people out there who you wouldn't even know are trans," she points out. "We're everywhere but it's still very hidden, a very hidden journey. There's a lot of guilt and shame. People have got to realise that you're born like this, you can't help it." She feels that the Inquiry set an important benchmark for trans rights. "[The Inquiry] tried to be as thorough as possible in the consultation process and a lot of our community felt as though they had been heard for the first time." Clarke also appreciates the ongoing nature of the Transgender Inquiry project. "Three of us [from Christchurch] went up for a national hui last March up in Wellington, and people came from all over the country," she says. "Ive interviewed Joy [Liddicoat, Commissioner], Rosslyn [Noonan, Chief Commissioner] and Jack [Byrne, Project Manager] on TranSister Radio, and we talked about how things were going and what's happening, how to keep moving forward on the Inquiry recommendations. It's a document that hasn't just been produced and left." The discrimination and human rights abuses identified by the Transgender Inquiry will take a long time to address. The Human Rights Commission does not have the authority to simply step in and pass their recommendations into law, and the long-term impact of the Inquiry remains to be seen. For now, at least the discrimination faced by trans and genderqueer people in Aotearoa is finally, and firmly, out of the closet.     This article was originally published in Victoria University's Salient magazine, and has been reproduced with the kind permission of the author. The Human Rights Commission's full Transgender Report is available to read here, and copies are also available to order for your home or workplace.     Nina Fowler - 8th September 2009

Credit: Nina Fowler

First published: Tuesday, 8th September 2009 - 6:49pm

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