Standing up and being counted in a binary Aotearoa.
Jak Stone is a rock ‘n roller. As the former guitarist and vocalist for Kiwi band ‘Motorboat’, Stone looked right at home in the testosterone-soaked world of hard rock. A large tattoo spread across one shoulder, aviator sunglasses, slicked back hair and sideburns completed the look of a tough showman. But when Jak stepped up to the mic the voice was unmistakably female. Jak Stone was a tough looking girl but a girl all the same.
Fast forward a handful of years and on Stone’s Facebook page there’s a new song, recorded during lockdown. Playing solo on a black acoustic guitar Stone looks more muscular now. A chinstrap beard traces the underside of Stone’s jaw and then he starts to sing. Low and with a gravely rasp Stone’s voice is one of the most striking elements of his transition from woman to man.
Since the clip was recorded a throat abscess and an operation to remove his tonsils has reduced the power of Stone’s singing voice.
“It sucks because I was really able to belt it out. I had worked really hard at it, but it’s gone again unfortunately. I can’t even make it through one song,” he said.
In addition to his singing voice, Stone’s transition to a man has come at significant personal cost. The band is gone, his wife of four years left four months after he began hormone therapy and he took a year off work and started a different job to avoid those who might struggle with the new identity.
No stranger to a hard knock life, Stone was kicked out of the family home at seventeen, a strict Jehovah’s Witness upbringing incompatible with the young woman who came out as a lesbian in her teens. Stone left New Zealand in search of rock ‘n roll dreams only to find years of fear and uncertainty, stranded in the United States, penniless and an illegal alien.
Arriving back in the country the young musician got a job in a Wellington guitar store and at 26, the tomboy Nadia changed her first name to Jak.
“Back then I thought ‘Yeah I want to be a dude but…’. I didn’t want to be someone that everyone rejects and talks about. Then people said to me ‘you’ll be a little man, so you shouldn’t be a man because no-one likes short men’. So, I just suffered on for another decade.”
Stone’s conversation is peppered with laughter, a lot of cursing and a genuine who gives a damn attitude. But that attitude is informed by a depth of experience that is not afforded to many. It would be a cliché to say that he can see both sides of a gender centric world, what Stone would say is that he has occupied a few points along the spectrum.
“I was an out lesbian since I was 17. If you like women and you’re a woman then you’re a lesbian. That was the label back then. I thought I was going to be a real butch dyke for a long time but then I started asking myself, is it just sexual or is it something I wanted to do with my entire life?”
Before the decision to transition there was already a struggle with labels and expectations. Stone rebelled against the lesbian community that he was expected to embrace.
“I got dumped by one girl for not really being a feminist, but I love men, all my friends are men it was just a bunch of bulls%*t. It was more damaging to me to be a part of that community than to be out of it.”
Stone is reluctant to paint himself as tortured. He talks of his life and his process of transition bluntly. He doesn’t waste this breath on sad tales of being misunderstood or trapped. Fiercely independent and a self-described loner, Stone often defines himself in relation to what separates him from others in the LGBT+ community. But he is not immune to outside influences. He is as likely to talk of his religious upbringing as informing elements of his personality as he is to heap his scorn on the teachings that rejected him.
There is an internal conflict at play when Stone talks, like an atheist who longs for the security of a secular certainty. When he discusses prejudice towards the LGBT+ community the only person that Stone is really prepared to point that finger at is himself, albeit a self from his former life.
“Even the word ‘trans’ to me… I just hate it. I don’t know how you can change things about people cos I still see those things in myself. I’m still transphobic. I’m still homophobic. If I meet a lesbian, I’m like, oh you’re such a pain in the arse!” laughs Stone.
The use of pronouns when addressing someone or talking of them can be seen as a sign of respect or an acknowledgement of status or authority. For Stone it was one of the earliest realisations of an incongruity between how he felt and how others perceived him.
“Every time someone said ‘she’ it felt like it was an insult. Not because I think that there’s anything wrong with being a woman, but it just felt like an insult to me,” said Stone.
The Gender Minorities Aotearoa website lists a glossary of over 45 terms to describe gender, gender diversity, sexual orientation and identity[i] yet in the 2018 New Zealand Census participants were asked to confirm simply whether they were male or female. This binary limitation left a significant proportion of the population invisible to the country’s most powerful research tool in highlighting inequality and the formulation and adjustment of policy.
“It was horrendous. I was infuriated that the census would choose to be statistically incorrect rather than acknowledge diverse genders.” – Anon, Counting Ourselves survey participant.
For the purposes of this article we will primarily use the terms: trans, transgender and non-binary when describing people who do not fall into the binary categories of male or female or people whose gender as it was documented at birth differs from their identity. Readers are encouraged to refer to the Gender Minorities Aotearoa: Trans 101 glossary of terms for clarification: https://genderminorities.com/database/glossary-transgender/
Between June 21 and 30 September 2018, The University of Waikato’s Transgender Health research lab conducted New Zealand’s first comprehensive national survey of transgender and non-binary people[ii]. The Counting Ourselves survey canvassed 1178 trans people aged between 14 and 83 years old living in Aotearoa. The survey was led out by trans people and its questions were designed to allow responses to be statistically aligned with census information and also to provide additional elements of insight.
The results highlighted a wide array of inequities between the general population and trans and non-binary people in many areas of health and wellbeing. Among its numerous categories it confirmed high rates of financial hardship, discrimination and violence against trans people and high levels of psychological distress, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.
Some examples of these are as follows:
- The median annual income of participants was $15,001–$20,000. This is around half of the median income for the general population.
- 44% of participants had experienced high levels of psychological distress in the month prior to filling out the survey compared to 2% of the general population.
- More than two thirds of respondents to the study had experienced discrimination.
- Participants who had been discriminated against were twice as likely to have attempted suicide in the past year (16%) than participants who did not report this (8%).
- Over three quarters of respondents had contemplated suicide and over one third had tried to kill themselves at some point in their lives.
- Trans or non-binary students were more than four times likely to experience bullying than students in the general population.
- Almost a fifth of those surveyed admitted to not participating in the Census altogether.
*Counting ourselves participants results compared to results from the 2016/17 New Zealand Health Survey.
There are currently only estimates for the total number of trans and non-binary people in New Zealand. A study of Canada’s population calculated that one in every two hundred people identified as trans or non-binary[iii]. If that proportion is similar in New Zealand then there are a little over 25,000 transgender and non-binary people the country. That’s on the conservative side of estimates. Gender Minorities Aotearoa extrapolates that 1.2% of the population identify as trans from a study of secondary school students in 2012[iv]. This would mean over 60 thousand New Zealanders identify as transgender. That’s about the same number of males over 12 years old who are registered to play rugby in this country[v].
In late June 2020 it was announced that the 2023 census would be modified to collect data on sexual orientation and gender identity. In September 2020 The Ministry of Education released the new Relationships and Sexuality education guidelines for schools which is designed to be inclusive of transgender and non-binary student perspectives. The New Zealand Statistical Standard for Sex and Gender has also been under review and during July and August 2020 and Statistics NZ was receiving submissions on changes to the standard.
Dr. Jamie Veale is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Waikato University where she was the principle investigator of the Counting Ourselves survey. She is also one of the experts working in a group to advise Statistics NZ on their standard changes.
“For the most part I am pleased that it has moved beyond the old Census questions of the two response options: Male or Female. That really didn’t work for our community and it’s an important step forward,” said Dr. Veale.
“We had a very high dark figure in terms of mental health. We had a 22 times greater likelihood of reporting high levels of mental distress and 37% of trans people had attempted suicide. We want to see improvements to mental health by having us named as priority groups in all mental health and addiction services,” she said.
The standard and types of gender affirmative health care available to transgender people is something that varies greatly across the country, as well as the ways people can locate and access them.
“If you’re in the Northern region, Waikato northwards you’re most likely to have seen a sexual health doctor. If you’re in Wellington you’re going through endocrinology and you might be going through primary health care in other parts of the country. More than that though, apart from in the Northern Auckland, Northland region there are no clear accessible pathways. There are some pathways that exist but not in a way that you can find through searching online. Census is about national coordination in a lot of areas. I think this is an opportunity to think about gender affirming health care in terms of what we could be doing there,” said Dr Veale.
Jemima Bullock is a Clinical Psychologist at Wellington Hospital’s endocrine research dept. From a tiny office looking out over Newtown she spends two and a half days of each week helping people from the Wellington, Hutt Valley and Wairarapa districts to access hormone treatment similar to what Jak Stone has undergone. Bullock’s services are in high demand. While CCDHB policy states that patients should have an appointment scheduled within 90 days of referral, her latest patient had waited over six months to see her, with COVID further complicating a system under strain. Bullock typically instigates two new cases a week.
Bullock is enthusiastic about her role and the benefits that being more physically aligned to someone’s gender identity can create for her patients but, at times, she can be almost apologetic about the need for a psychologist to approve a patient for hormone therapy.
“We support the concept that if you’ve got a healthy person that identifies as gender diverse, transgender or non-binary that they should be able to go to their GP and their GP should be able to do this job. From the feedback I’ve had, I think there’s a lot of medical anxiety from GP’s. Doctors are trained to use medication to treat something that’s physically wrong with the body. Whereas this is based on someone’s self-report rather than a medical problem,” said Bullock.
Bringing gender affirming treatment into primary care means that it’s not only doctors that have to take on new skills and an inclusive mindset to accommodate transgender people.
Jak Stone had only attempted to book a consultation when he found himself on the receiving end of a callous staff member.
“My friend, who was transitioning told me that I had to get this really expensive therapist in order to get funding. So I tried to get an appointment and [the receptionist] was so rude to me. I just knew in my guts that wasn’t right. She was such a b*$%h and it’s already really hard and I was just really stung by that to be honest,” he said.
Attitudes at reception, having attention drawn to differences between appearance and gender details on records, refusal to address a person by the name they have provided or using an inappropriate pronoun, are all significant barriers that can prevent people from not only accessing gender affirming health care but also the broader range of services that many take for granted.
Some comments from respondents in the Counting Ourselves survey revealed harrowing experiences of care that differed not only from region to region but sometimes, simply from a trip down the hallway.
Content warning: in this extract a participant describes an experience that felt like rape to them.
“I had to go to the hospital (maternity) to get medication to induce the miscarriage. First up the receptionist made a massive loud spectacle about but you’re a man! You can’t access this unless you’re a woman. I had to say ‘Yes I am a woman’ or she wouldn’t let me go to my appointment. All this was in a quiet space with about 20 other people staring and listening.
Then I saw a clinician in her 30s or 40s who did an ultrasound. It was horrific. She kept saying she was a Christian. She looked me up and down literally with her mouth open looking so disgusted. I asked to see the screen and she said ‘you don’t need to’ then walked out, leaving the ultrasound thing . . . just hanging out of me. It felt like rape. It was so f*#king awful and humiliating. Eventually she came back in, roughly pulled it out, and told me to go.
Then I had to go to the maternity miscarriage unit place and sat down in the waiting room. An older woman who worked there immediately came over and asked me if I’d like to wait next door by the tea room. She was so discreet but kind. Used my correct name and pronoun and didn’t miss a beat. They never mentioned gender, just acknowledged how hard it was to miscarry – on the heart – they were so great . . . they wouldn’t accept thanks, just said everyone is entitled to respect and the service they require and said they were doing nothing more than their jobs.
It was the ultimate in contrast between abuse and care. Fear of interacting with the medical system has been a component in deciding not to try getting pregnant again . . . Competency training is so badly needed.”- Anon, Counting Ourselves survey participant.
Experiences like this or the fear of them can inhibit a person’s likelihood of engaging with the health system altogether. The data from an inclusive census will mean that these issues will be clearer in the future but from experience Jemima Bullock believes that transgender people would be more likely to suffer the consequences of presenting late on serious health issues.
“My theory would be that in areas like undiagnosed cervical cancers and breast cancer screening i.e. anything that’s quite invasive, that less trans people are going to opt to have such tests. Especially if you’re struggling to get past the receptionist,” she said.
One term that keeps coming up in almost any discussion of transgender issues is correct pronoun use. Gendered terms such as Mr, Mrs or Miss and he, she are so ingrained in everyday use that it can seem awkward or presumptuous to avoid them. It may take an adjustment to speak of someone as they or them initially.
New Zealanders can look beyond our colonial roots to understand that it is not unnatural to speak in this way. The Maori language didn’t heavily emphasise gender until the imposition European standards. No individual words existed in Maori for the terms of ‘mother, ‘father’, ‘wife’, ‘husband’, ‘daughter’, ‘son’, ‘sister’, ‘brother’, ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’ before the arrival of settlers[vi].
Using an appropriate pronoun or simply illustrating that you are not making assumptions about a person’s gender can have a powerful inclusive effect. Jemima Bullock pointed out that such an experience for someone who might be considering their being trans could be a subtle indication of a safe, inclusive environment and the first steps towards better health outcome for them.
“It may feel like a foreign thing to do to ask for someone’s preferred pronouns but you’re not going to offend anybody and, in fact, you might be the key in the first step to someone feeling confident enough to talk about their identity,” she said.
Out in broader society many are striving to show solidarity for trans-gender people and to create inclusive safe spaces particularly under the broader banner of LGBT+ awareness and rights.
There is debate about the efficacy of some of these measures. Institutions and commercial entities that look to promote themselves as inclusive and safe come under scrutiny if these efforts are too closely aligned with commercial gain and not strongly supported by a truly inclusive culture.
New Zealand organisation Rainbow Tick provides accreditation to organisations and business to illustrate an inclusive culture and safe environment for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Getting the Rainbow Tick allows you to show employees, customers and the wider world that you are a progressive, inclusive and dynamic organisation that reflects the community you are based in.” – Rainbow Tick website.
Rainbow Tick recently revamped its website after criticism of its use of inaccurate or Pakeha-centric terms and allegations that companies who were displaying their accreditation had bought into the scheme without substantial efforts to educate staff or to address discrimination. In an article for RNZ, employees of Fletcher Building, Placemakers and law firm Russel McVeagh made allegations of discrimination and harassment at the firms while each remained accredited with the Rainbow tick[vii].
In 2019 Massey University, also a Rainbow tick accredited organisation, came under fire from students for agreeing to host seminars by speakers with anti-trans agendas. The ‘Feminisim 2020’ event was to feature three overseas speakers and one New Zealander whose ideological stance is most commonly described as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist or TERF. The TERF agenda is typically couched in the assertion that trans-women are males seeking to invade the safe spaces (such as bathrooms and changing rooms) of vulnerable (predominantly white) women in order to perpetrate sexual violence[viii]. Such perspectives are painfully ironic when the Counting Ourselves study reveals high rates of negative experiences in public bathrooms for trans people. Over a third of Counting Ourselves participants stated that they avoided bathrooms often or always and 58% avoided gyms or pools for fear of being mistreated for being trans or non-binary.
A petition with over six thousand signatures against the event was presented to Massey Vice Chancellor Jan Thomas[ix]. The petition asserted that the presence
of the event on campus was damaging to the wellbeing and safety of
trans, intersex and queer communities. In an interview with Stuff, Jaden Brooks, president of UniQ (a student club that provides support for LGBTQ+ students) pointed out the incongruity of Massey’s Rainbow Tick accreditation if it went ahead with the event which he described as:
“A really clear way of Massey saying they [don’t] care about their trans students.”[x]
Massey University relented to the pressure and cancelled the event which was subsequently held later that year, hosted by MP David Seymour in Parliament[xi].
New Zealand is at the beginning of the path towards better care and awareness for its transgender community. The recognition at an institutional level is an important step to work towards reducing the inequities that face its members, particularly in relation to health care and the funding of gender affirming services. On the ground though, many transgender people still deal with high degrees of discrimination, sexual violence and many report feeling unsafe in public places.
Jak Stone’s ability to be ‘stealth’ means that he is often confronted by the prejudice of people who are unaware of his background.
“Heaps of people come into my shop and they talk about gay people in a negative way or they’re racist and I feel like saying, man, if you only knew who you were talking to,” he said.
It is a sad indictment of the male violence in our society that a minority group so marginalised in terms of public awareness reports feeling unsafe in public spaces at similar levels to women in the general population. The degree of sexual violence perpetrated towards trans people is even more shocking. In the Counting Ourselves survey transgender people report someone having had sex with them against their will at three times the level of sis-women and twelve times the level of sis-men.
Stone’s devil may care attitude may be on display when he talks of fear of violence but what lies beneath is deadly serious.
“No, I don’t feel safe and sometimes I’m scared but then I think like well ‘world, do your worst’. I’ve gone through so much that I don’t really have any resistance about what’s going to happen to me. If I’m going to be murdered for being trans then maybe I’ll give everyone a bit of a message about it because I think I’m doing a pretty good job of being a little trans guy,” said Stone.
The issues and barriers that transgender people face can be seen as social, institutional or even colonial in Aotearoa but Jak Stone relates his experiences and aspirations for the future on more universal terms.
“I can see the world changing. I don’t think there is actually any gay or straight or male or female at the end of the day. People don’t seem to understand that anyone you meet could be trans. You never know who you’re looking at but if you just give people a chance then things can change quite a bit. I do feel pretty passionate about it and it’s not from any political LGBTQ+ bulls%*t, it’s from a human angle. Can we just stop mocking and ripping each other down? I was teased for trying to equalise people! Apparently when you’re a straight male you can’t understand all this s%*t!”
Stone laughs long and low in his raspy voice, “Ha ha ha…actually, I think you can!”
[i] Gender Minorities Aotearoa: https://genderminorities.com/
[ii] Counting Ourselves survey: https://countingourselves.nz/index.php/blog/