Rainbow resources from Aotearoa: accessibility, takatāpui, and healthcare

This is the second in a short series of posts on my recent trip to Aotearoa. See also:
Part 1: Trans health and rainbow futures


During my April/May visit to Aotearoa (New Zealand) I picked up a lot of amazing resources. In this blog post, I share some brief reflections on three great documents which contain an enormous amount of interesting and useful material produced by and for Rainbow communities (takatāpui, lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex and queer people), on topics that include disability, Māori experiences of gender and sexuality, and affirmative care.

These documents will be of interest to people who want to know more about rainbow activism, communities and healthcare in Aotearoa, but also clearly have a wider relevance and importance. In writing about them, my intention is to highlight the expert contribution of the authors. As a UK-based scholar and activist, I learned a great deal and it is my hope that readers will too.


All of Us

59b7fa1e4a1c5a438395612258da“Imagine how engaged our communities would be if we were curious about our strengths and values, rather than our limitations.”

This beautifully illustrated guide addresses topics such as structural stigma, intersectionality, accountability, minority stress and (de)colonialism from the perspective of a queer disabled politics. It promotes a mode of solidarity and understanding that recognises and works with difference.

All of Us was created by Stace Robertson, a queer trans man of Pākehā (European or non-Māori) descent who lives with Cerebral Palsy.

Robertson explains that the project came about after he noticed that people are often not fully included even in minority communities if they experience multiple forms of marginalisation.

He therefore decided to create a resource that shared the perspective of people with these experiences, drawing on that advise of mentors, and advisory group and 14 people from a range of backgrounds who offered to share their stories in the document.

This resource will be of interest to people who want to learn more about experiences of multiple marginalisation. It will be useful to those who are new to this topic, as well as those who want to understand more about factors such as ableism or migrant status impact LGBTIQ experience and vice-versa.

There is also an excellent easy-read version of the guide available in the second half of the document.


Takatāpui: Part of the Whānau

Screen+Shot+2017-02-26+at+4.12.09+PM“Takatāpui is a traditional term meaning ‘intimate companion of the same sex.’ It has been reclaimed to embrace all Māori who identify with diverse genders and sexualities such as whakawāhine, whakawāhine, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer.”

The document was created to provide information and support for takatāpui and their whanau (family), but it will also be of interest to people wanting to learn more about mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge or wisdom) with regards to sexual and gender diversity. It was written by Dr Elizabeth Kerekere, a renowned takatāpui activist, scholar, and founder/chair of the Tīwhanawhana Trust.

Through colonialism, Aotearoa inherited the sexism and homophobia of the British legal system. Takatāpui narrative were erased through pathologisation, colonial records, and the imposition of the nuclear family model. In light of this, Kerekere highlights the importance of pre-colonial histories, and of contemporary resilience and the importance of pride, family and community support.

In the UK, we have begun to talk more in recent years about how binary gender norms were imposed on many societies by British invaders through colonialism. These conversations can only become deeper and more nuanced through respectful engagement with knowledge produced by Indigenous peoples on this topic, rather than relying on the flawed work of colonial anthropologists. As a white trans woman who experiences both gender marginalisation and unearned privileges afforded by the legacy of colonialism, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn directly from takatāpui perspectives.


Guidelines for Gender Affirming Healthcare for Gender Diverse and Transgender Children, Young People and Adults in Aotearoa New Zealand

Guidelines for Gender Affirming Health low res.pdf“These guidelines are based on the principle of Te Mana Whakahaere; trans people’s autonomy of their own bodies, represented by healthcare provision based on informed consent.”

These guidelines were produced by a coalition of healthcare practitioners, academics and community members, with the support of the Northern Region Clinical and Consumer Advisory Group. They are intended to supplement the World Professional Association for Transgender Health Standards of Care, providing guidance relevant to District Health Boards in providing gender affirming healthcare throughout Aotearoa.

An important feature of the guidelines is the use of Māori health expert Professor Mason Durie’s health framework. The document highlights two key principles for health promotion development: Te Mana Whakahaere (autonomy) and Ngā Manukura (community leadership). There is therefore is an emphasis on trans and gender diverse people having collective control over their own destiny and decisions around healthcare.

Furthermore, Te Whare Tapa Whā, as described by Durie, conceptualises health and wellbeing as the four cornerstones of the wharenui (meeting house). As noted in the guidelines, this model recognises the equal importance of Taha Wairua (spiritual health), Taha Whānau (family health), Taha Hinengaro (mental health) and Taha Tinana (physical health). These four cornerstones provide the structure for the document.

Consequently, the guidelines highlight topics such as Māori and Pasifika genders, minority stress, social transition, health in the family and in schools, and mental health, positioning these as equally important a consideration as physical transition (for those who desire/require medical interventions). This strikes me as a really important move, de-centring hormones and surgery to instead provide a more holistic view on trans health needs.

Like many similar documents, the guidelines are not perfect. I met a number of clinical practitioners in Aotearoa who considered this document to be a good starting point for conversations around improving care, but with some limitations outside of the relatively well-resourced Northern region in which they were primarily written. I have my own concerns around the citation of somewhat inaccurate information produced by cis clinical researchers (for example, Table 5, based on the Endocrine Society Guidelines, underestimates how long it might take for certain bodily changes to take place). I also feel that the definition of “informed consent” used in the document could perhaps benefit from tightening to specify what does and does not constitute appropriate oversight in determining whether or not patients are “adequately prepared” for medical interventions.

Regardless, I am deeply grateful for the work from so many people that goes into producing guidelines such as this, and I hope they can contribute usefully to the ongoing depathologisation of trans health.

Desirability

A version of this article was originally written for a local feminist zine themed around sex.


The poster I see is on the London Underground, but I later find out they’re part of a wide campaign backed in part by the National Health Service. On the poster is a photograph of a person’s face that, due to the limitations of our language, is all too easily described as “masculine”. This individual is wearing somewhat exaggerated make-up: bright blue eye-shadow, bright red lipstick, and a heavy layer of foundation that’s clearly covering up an extensive five o’ clock shadow. Said make-up is quite heavily smeared.

If you drink like a man”, the poster declares, “you might end up looking like one.

Although the model used in the photograph may well be a man, this poster is hardly a reassuring one for women with a “masculine” appearance. “If you’re a woman who looks like a man”, it says, “you’re a skanky whore who drinks too much”. Needless to say, this is a pretty misogynistic message. As a post on the F-Word points out, it relies on narrow and incredibly stereotypical ideals of beauty and gendered norms of acceptable behaviour.

But there’s a further subtext to this poster, and a pretty blatant one at that. “If you drink”, declares an advertising campaign that was apparently “approved” by various equality bodies, “you’ll end up looking like a dirty, ugly tranny*, and then how are you gonna get laid, huh?”

And this is the crux of the issue, and it’s why I’ve been pretty pissed off every time I’ve seen one of these bloody posters. They’re just a tiny, tiny part of the message that can be found on billboards, in magazines, in the cinema, on the television, in newspapers, in books, and in even in freakin’ academic papers. It’s quite a simple message, and it runs as follows: transsexed women are deeply unattractive and undesirable.

I understand where this idea is coming from. Trans women tend to have lived as men (or at least as boys) for some part of their life, and what’s more undesirable than a man? Hell, she might still have a penis. That’s disgusting. What kind of red-blooded male could possibly want to bed one of them? (Since we’re talking larger societal trends here, it is of course men who are supposed to sleep with women…what are you, some kind of lezzer?)

Actually, scrap that last point. This is an issue which is prevalent in the so-called LGBT community as well. Whilst it’s true that not every daughter of Lesbos is a card-carrying separatist who annually attends the Michigan Festival for Womyn-born-Womyn, I’d wager that the majority of gay women – and even a large proportion of bisexual women – are a bit funny about the idea of being attracted to a trans woman, let alone sleeping with one. It’s pretty telling after all that the one trans character in The L Word (that seminal piece of lesbionic television) is a trans man, ‘cos it’s the lady bits and tits that count, innit? The actress who plays him is even made up deliberately to look like a pretty (if slightly butch) woman on the DVD covers. What a cheek.

It took me a fair while to become confident in my own sexuality. Some of that was down to my own body image and related issues, but the media bombardment (“you’re ugly! No one will ever love you!”) hardly helped, and neither did the attitudes of people around me. If a girl’s a bit ugly or has a radical dress sense, she might “look like a tranny”. That, of course, is meant to be an insult.

Regressive stereotypes obviously play their part in this. After all, in this very image-obsessed culture with its very limited repertoire of available attractive body types, why would any self-respecting straight man or gay woman accept their attraction to a woman who looks like a man? (this is, of course, assuming that said man or woman is gracious enough to accept a trans woman’s gender identity in the first place). It’s an attitude that goes beyond image though: if you were to present our disappointingly average straight man (and our gay woman) with a trans woman who conformed to society’s ideals of an attractive female body, they’re still likely to be wary. Once a woman is known to be transsexed, her appearance often becomes irrelevant as gender essentialism and/or misguided homophobia comes into play: she’s  innately unattractive.

In an impressive twist, this can even happen retrospectively, with a trans woman becoming hideously ugly after someone has had sex with her if they found out she’s transsexed (or: if the person she slept with already knew and was trying to keep it quiet, but then someone else finds out that a bit of rumpy-pumpy occurred between the two). This kind of idiocy would be hilarious, if not for the treatment trans women get as a result of this. There’s even an exciting legal manoeuvre known as the “trans panic” defence, whereby the defendant attempts to excuse a transphobic assault or murder by claiming that after having sex with the victim, they “panicked” upon discovering that they’d done the dirty with a trans person.

It’s at this point in the article that I realise things are getting a bit depressing. Let’s face it, this kind of bullshit isn’t particularly pleasant. It’s not a lot of fun  knowing that these attitudes are highly prevalent. I’m fortunate enough to “look just like any other woman” (whatever that means), which is all very well and good for ensuring that I don’t get beaten up on the street, but I’m perfectly aware that I’m not meant to be sexually desirable to, like, anyone. This situation is a lot worse for trans women who find it harder to pass as cis women; no wonder the trans community often places so much undue emphasis on looking like “normal people”. It certainly makes life easier if you happen to do so.

But you know what? Fuck ’em.**

Trans people come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. I’ve been talking a lot about transsexed women, but there’s also transvestites, genderqueer people (who might not necessarily consider themselves to be female or male), genderfluid individuals whose identities regularly shift, and a whole spectrum of gender diversity under the trans umbrella. We all tend to look quite different, act quite different, have different interests and ideas and aims and projects, but we’re all bloody gorgeous.

That’s not just my stubborn pride talking either. There are those trans people who do, in fact, conform to societal ideals of beauty. As for those who don’t: in many queer circles, androgyny and gendered ambiguity are highly valued (and the actual gender identity of said androgynous individual is usually respected, regardless of whether that identity is female, male, or something entirely different). In butch/femme lesbian communities, extremely “masculine” woman are often considered to be incredibly hot. We’re all attracted to different people in different ways. I’m pretty certain that there are straight men out there who fancy heavily built women, gay men who fancy men with vaginas, straight women who can handle androgyny. There’s also a good reason why trans men are sometimes fetishised by lesbians and shemale porn is consumed by many, although I’d prefer for that attraction to be there without us being reduced to mere sex objects.

Still, for all our supposed undesirability, I find it pretty telling that most trans people I know are in a happy relationship with someone who’s also pretty damn attractive. Actually, a lot of the trans people I know have several partners; I figure once you’ve dealt with society’s disapproval of your gender identity, you don’t tend to give a crap what others think about ethical, negotiated polamory. By contrast, I personally happen to be a serial monogamist, but to each their own, y’know?

People who have serious body image issues can find someone who has the hots for them. These individuals aren’t deluding themselves in the slightest. The real lie is in societal norms of acceptable attractiveness, but sexual attraction can’t always be restrained by those norms.

And we have a lot of fun sex too. Vanilla sex, kinky sex, gay sex, straight sex; I’m talking everything from straightforward sex to really weird sex. We’ve all got our own ways of negotiating desire, identity and our own bodies. Some trans people just don’t care and will go at it any old how. Others will throw  essentialism out the window and redefine their own bodies. I know pre-operative trans women who describe their genitals as a large clitoris; I know non-operative trans women who describe their penis as a penis. It’s just, y’know, a girl penis. It’s on a girl’s body after all, so what else could it be? Meanwhile some trans people are asexual, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t enjoy happy love hugs.

Quite frankly, a bet a whole load of women would love to be as confident and good looking as I am. I’ve got a pretty face, great hair, fantastic legs, and I’ve recently grown some rather shapely breasts (going through puberty during your twenties is a pretty weird experience, but better late than never!) I’m in a long-term relationship with a sensitive, caring, bloody handsome man, and we have awesome funtimes.

Do you look like a transsexual this morning? No? Well, unlucky. You’re missing out.

* I deliberately use this word only in a sarcastic fashion. It’s a loaded term and can be deeply offensive, so please think carefully about any context in which you use it.

** Actually, don’t fuck them. Find someone else who actually deserves a good shag, and do them instead.