Rethinking 'normal is best'

Transgender and intersex New Zealanders are gaining legal recognition, but some big issues remain, says a Victoria researcher.

Mani Bruce Mitchell
New Zealander Mani Bruce Mitchell, who is a prominent member of the international intersex community. Photo: Grant Lahood

Associate Professor Elisabeth McDonald, with help from Summer Research Scholarship student Polly Johnson, is updating the 2008 Human Rights Commission report on discrimination against transgender and intersex people, a study that was a world first when it was published.

For the transgender community—those whose gender identity is different from their physical sex at birth—one pressing legal issue is the difficulty of changing documents to accurately reflect their gender identity.

Elisabeth says in the six years since the report, To Be Who I Am, was published, this has got easier for both transgender and intersex New Zealanders (those whose bodies fall between male and female).

“Both groups can now change their gender on a passport by statutory declaration, rather than going through the courts, and they can choose between male, female or indeterminate gender when applying for a driver’s licence.”

She says the Marriage Amendment Act, which allows two people to marry ‘regardless of their sex, sexual orientation or gender identification’, has significant implications for transgender people who wish to remain married after having theirgender identity legally changed.

One issue that remains unresolved, however, is access to gender reassignment health services, with relatively few practitioners available to carry out the treatment and little public funding to pay for it.

Discrimination is another concern,” says Elisabeth.

“Prisons are particularly fraught—how do you cater for a person who identifies as one gender but has the physical body of another? There is no simple answer and many views on what should happen.”

Elisabeth works closely with Mani Bruce Mitchell, a New Zealander who is a prominent member of the international intersex community and CEO of the Intersex Trust. When Mani was born in rural King Country, doctors first told the parents to raise their child as a boy. After further medical investigations, the parents renamed Bruce ‘Margaret’ and agreed to surgery to feminise her body. Mani was in her 40swhen she discovered her medical records and the details of her intersex birth.

She says examining the thinking around medical interventions on the one in 2,000 babies of indeterminate sex born each year is arguably the most urgent issue for the intersex community. The controversial treatment model was pioneered by expatriate sexologist John Money, who believed that gender was the result of nurture, not nature.

“We need to get past the shame and secrecy that has surrounded this issue, challenge the idea that ‘normal is best’ and give parents more support to understand what is right for their newly born intersex child,” says Mani.

“You might make the best guess about whether a child is male or female, but as they grow up it works out differently. What we don’t want is brutal medical intervention that is irreversible.”

In July, Elisabeth and Mani discussed New Zealand’s progress in treatment of intersex people at the ‘Law on the Edge’ conference in Canada, an event jointly run by the Canadian and Australasian Law and Society Associations.

They also screened the award-winning film Intersexion, a New Zealand made documentary in which intersex people from around the world, including Mani, tell their stories.

Mani is a guest lecturer for the third year Law and Sexuality course Elisabeth teaches and the two collaborate in a range of other ways.

“As an academic, it’s easy to lose touch with people’s lived experience. It’s important to me to interact with people whose lives may be changed by the work I am doing,” says Elisabeth.

“Intersex people can be invisible,” says Mani. “It’s hard to bring about changes unless we can rely on people outside the community to help.”