Transgender rights debate rises to surface

Dr Bryce Edwards explains how transgender political struggles not only form part of the evolving “culture wars” in New Zealand politics, but reflect the complexity of contemporary politics - containing some surprising dynamics.

The boundaries of gender and sexual politics are constantly being expanded at the moment, with new human rights being demanded, established and enforced. One of the latest challenges is the struggle for transgender rights – especially in terms of access to healthcare, single-sex-only spaces, and sporting and cultural participation and representation. In the process, concepts around gender and biological sex are being radically redefined. 

The explosion of debate about transgender political issues has mainly occurred in the United States, where over the last year there has been conflict over the rights of transgender people to use gender-specific toilets. In New Zealand, this debate never reached anything like the same level of polarisation as in the US, largely because our politics and society are not dominated by the socially conservative and Christian right. New Zealanders have tended to be more relaxed and tolerant about sexuality and gender issues – especially over recent decades.

The latest debate here regarding transgender rights has revolved around access to other gender-specific spaces. Women-only gyms are currently faced with the issue of whether they should be inclusive of transgender women. This was dealt with in the weekend by TVNZ’s Q+A programme, which broadcast a feature story by Whena Owen – watch: A woman fighting to define her own gender

Last year, the selection of New Zealand’s first transgender athlete to compete in the Commonwealth Games, Laurel Hubbard, led to vigorous debate about rights, rules, and fairness relating to transgender participation. 

On Sunday, TVNZ’s Marae programme broadcast the story of kapa haka performer, Kere Matua, who wants to perform in a male role, saying “It's not my fault that I'm in a wāhine's body and I think like a man. So it's really difficult for me, 'cause I really, really want to stand as a tāne, and that's just me” – see: 'I want to stand as a tāne' – South Auckland twins challenge traditional gender roles in kapa haka

Divisions in liberalism and feminism

One of the most interesting aspects of the debate over transgender rights, is that it cannot be interpreted in any traditional way, such as a simple dichotomy of left versus right, or liberal versus conservative. This debate is not a case of liberals arguing for greater transgender rights vs social conservatives arguing against these rights. Instead, the debate is mainly amongst the liberals – or in fact, mainly amongst feminists.

This is because many of these transgender issues go to the heart of feminist politics. And so, the very idea that humans can change gender, or be “gender fluid”, is inherently problematic for many feminists. And when it comes to transgender women, some feminists are hostile to the very concept, and reject it outright. Such feminists often go as far as saying transgender women are in fact “not women at all, but men who have appropriated a woman’s identity”. They are especially wary that when rights are afforded to transgender women – for example, rights to access women-only spaces or take up women’s representative roles – then this comes at the expense of other women’s rights. 

It’s largely radical feminists who have a problem with transgender rights. In fact, there’s a label for this type of radical feminist – a “TERF” (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist), although this is increasingly seen as a pejorative term, especially by those who share this view and prefer to be called “gender critical feminists”. Their rejection of the idea that transgender women are “real women” is seen as highly offensive and reactionary by pro-transgender activists.

Gender fluidity debates

The campaign for transgender rights in New Zealand is tied into a broader radical shift in ideas around gender and biological sex amongst predominantly leftwing and radical liberal youth. For these activists, the “traditional” male-female dichotomy is to be rejected outright, and the adoption of “gender fluidity” and gender diversity is heavily promoted. 

Therefore, the idea that a person is either male or female based on appearance or biology is rejected. The categorisation of who is a woman or man is now generally seen as one of self-identification. That is, if someone calls themselves a woman, then that is what they are. The fact of whether a transgender person has or has not undergone “sex realignment surgery” is seen as irrelevant in terms of that person’s gender identity.

The increasing emphasis on gender pronouns

Much of the debate on gender boundaries now goes beyond “transgender”. Many radical youth in New Zealand now identify as being non-binary, “gender fluid”, or even “genderqueer”. A gender fluid person rejects labels of being strictly a man or a woman, and may or may not lean towards taking on more “traditionally masculine” or more “traditionally feminine” appearances. 

The increase in people identifying as gender fluid has led to a radical challenge around the use of gendered pronouns. You can see this a lot on Twitter, for example, with some users listing their preferred gendered pronouns in their profiles. And increasingly, the use of traditional pronouns – he, him, her, she – is out and pronoun diversity is in. Now, gender fluid and non-binary people are demanding to be referred to by the pronoun of their choice. 

There has been a backlash to this concept of self-identification. Radical feminists, including Germaine Greer, have strongly attacked the concept of what they see as “biological men” taking up a female or gender fluid identity. And on the conservative and libertarian right, others, including Jordon Peterson, have publicly refused to use such gender-neutral pronouns.

Debates over gender-reassignment surgery in the public health system

While these language debates might come across as pedantic or esoteric, there are plenty of other transgender issues that are not only fuelling debate, but have a greater nexus with Government decision-making. The biggest one is probably around access to healthcare services for transgender people – from counselling, to hormone-replacement drugs, to gender-reassignment surgery.

It’s extremely difficult for transgender people to access surgical procedures. In fact, there is currently a waiting list for some gender-reassignment procedures that stretches to 70 years. The problem is that such health services are left to the individual DHBs to arrange, and it seems that none of them can individually afford to hire a specialist in this area. When the last plastic surgeon who performed gender realignment operations retired in 2014, he wasn’t replaced. 

It might be expected that a reforming Government might have plans to prioritise this issue as part of its shakeup of the health system. After all, the Labour Party has generally been at the forefront of most gender debates where rights are extended. And there is good reason to believe that many Labour Party activists might want to champion greater access to transgender healthcare. 

However, there are many reasons to be pessimistic about the chances of the Labour Government progressing these issues. Jacinda Ardern and senior Labour politicians are highly-pragmatic about social liberal issues – and therefore cautious about promoting them onto the public agenda. 

Overall, it seems that transgender rights issues are bubbling up and are here to stay, and the old order is having trouble adjusting to the challenge. But in this area, the old order includes many of those in the Labour Party, feminist politics, and in liberal circles generally.

Newsroom is powered by the generosity of readers like you, who support our mission to produce fearless, independent and provocative journalism.

Become a Supporter


Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: Thank you.