Phylesha Brown-Acton, director of F'INE, is sick of transpeople being referred to as a medical liability.
Phylesha Brown-Acton, director of F'INE, is sick of transpeople being referred to as a medical liability. Greg Bowker

Empowering Trans people a 'slow slog'

A decade ago 10 trans people were profiled for the world first inquiry into discrimination against trans people.

To mark the milestone the Herald has gone back to Phylesha Brown-Acton and Tom Hamilton, who were both profiled in the original report, to see how life is living as a trans person 10 years on.

This index of words used to describe gender identity and sexuality may be useful if you don't understand the terminology they use.

Discrimination - 'it's beyond a joke'

Most transgender people are just trying to survive without constantly being reminded that they are trans - that's the experience LGBTQI social worker Phylesha Brown-Acton has had.

The 41-year-old is the director of F'INE, a social service for LGBTQI Pacific people. She believed discrimination had worsened over the past 10 years.

An example Brown-Acton used was when she tried to get life insurance through a broker in her 30s. It took eight months before she got her first offer, which was more of an insult, to insure her "high risk" life for $1000.

After three more months of trying she accepted an offer that she said is about half what it would be for a cis-gendered person.

"It's a lot harder in today's time to be able to live a life of freedom without discrimination or barrier.

"Trans people are referred to as a medical liability, suicide prone and a whole raft of other things.

"That really works against trans people. I laugh about it, as sad as it is, because it's beyond a joke."

Phylesha Brown-Acton prepares for her performance in the Miss New Zealand Drag Queen contest in 1999.
Phylesha Brown-Acton prepares for her performance in the Miss New Zealand Drag Queen contest in 1999. Glenn Jeffrey

Sometimes Brown-Acton will choose not to go to the bathroom, especially a public one, for fears of her safety. When she was in New York last year to speak to the United Nations she was confronted three separate times about using a public women's bathroom. She had heard of trans children at school holding on all day because they were scared about being told off for using the bathroom of the gender they identified with.

She said instead toilets needed to be designed so everyone could use the bathroom - like a number of unisex single stalls.

Awkward GPs and being misgendered at the doctor was a major issue for trans people and discouraged them from seeking medical attention. Brown-Acton knows of four trans women who put off going to a GP for years only to find they had type 2 diabetes when Brown-Acton sent them to her trans-friendly GP.

"Every time they went to the GP they were called men, misgendered and made to feel uncomfortable. It was a common theme across all transwomen.

"When they had a health problem they decided it was just easier to go get a Panadol and go to sleep."

To deal with that Brown-Acton engaged a doctor with experience in transgender care and got them to train GPs at her local One Health Care medical centre three years ago. She said transhealth wasn't "rocket science" and should be more accessible to those who need it.

Phylesha Brown Acton, and Bim Wilkinson at the 2015 Auckland Pride Gala.
Phylesha Brown Acton, and Bim Wilkinson at the 2015 Auckland Pride Gala. Norrie Montgomery

Brown-Acton always knew she was a girl, even when she was as young as 4. She socially transitioned around 15 and then began taking hormones to medically transition in her early 20s.

"I transitioned from a very young age. There was no social media, no access to medication, no information.

"As a young child I didn't have support. People didn't understand me. I had to contend with a lot of family not understanding or supporting me fully."

Now people starting to transition have to deal with the benefits and challenges of social media. On one hand they have limitless information and access to other trans people's experiences, but they also have to develop a thick skin to rebuff abusive keyboard warriors.

Brown-Acton's wishlist for change is long. Among it she'd love to see a national centre for trans-health established, a gender-reassignment surgeon found, the Human Rights Act amended to include protection against discrimination of a person's gender identity and proper statistical analysis that identifies the size of the LGBT+ community.

'Slow slog' for equality

Transgender people are in the midst of a "slow slog" towards equality - where progress has been made, but not nearly enough.

That's what Wellington-based transman Tom Hamilton believes. He works as a counsellor at OUTLine, helping people "aged 3 to 103" with challenges pertaining to their gender identity and sexuality.

He said discrimination had lessened over the past decade but being transgender was still not easy.

"Ten years ago people didn't understand what transgender and nonbinary were. Now, the younger generations have got it. They are growing up with a more fluid understanding of a gender binary world.

"The older generation has gotten better but more work needs to be done to understand intergenerational difference and bicultural differences for trans people.

"You only have to look at the average story in the media to see transphobic vitriolic comments. That is concerning."

Hamilton identified as non-binary (neither male nor female) from when he was around 16 to 27 before identifying as a man.

He said the most common issues that surface for his counselling clients are economic barriers to work, transphobia, health care access, medically transitioning and having to wait for surgeries while struggling with body dysphoria.

Hamilton wanted to highlight how varied the trans community is. There's no such thing as "one" transgender experience, he said.

"Transgender, fa'afafine, fakaleiti or being takatāpui - they are all very different constructs around gender … Their stories are so different.

"So I'm not just trans, I'm gay and that works with queer, not all trans people are queer."

Hamilton hoped that more funding could be unlocked for the rainbow community to allow existing organisations to do more work and reach more people. Better and more affordable access to medical care was also on his wishlist.

"Physical violence against our community has to stop. People can not be treated violently because of who they are.

"We definitely know more now than we knew then [in 2008] but we have to keep learning more. Otherwise we're not on the right track."



Brazen theft changes owner's perspective

Brazen theft changes owner's perspective

"Ninety-nine per cent of people are really good.”

Callide MP wants more details on abortion law change

Callide MP wants more details on abortion law change

Colin Boyce says the bill must go through the process.

Successful day despite cruise delay

Successful day despite cruise delay

Two-hour delay doesn't dampen spirits.

Local Partners