Subject to change: The new gender-fluid face of Shortland Street

By Kim Knight

Primetime local television is about to feature its first transgender actor playing a transgender character in a long-running storyline. Kim Knight speaks exclusively to the new face of Shortland Street.

In the room with the exposed brick wall and a window open to the traffic, Tash Keddy clips a microphone to his T-shirt and faces the camera.

It's his first media interview. We're in a student flat, past the kitchen with the half-eaten loaf of focaccia; past the communal storage space containing a bicycle and a caged pet rat.

Keddy's room smells of lavender. Cool. Collected. This is the calm before the storm.
On Tuesday night, Keddy makes his Shortland Street debut. In the soap's first major transgender storyline, he will play Blue - a 15-year-old girl who wants to be a boy.

"I have a similar experience," Keddy says to our camera. "Of maybe not feeling 100 per cent the gender you were born with, and taking steps to move forward, to be someone you want to be."

How does Keddy currently identify?

"Somewhere on the male spectrum. Which is pretty broad."

Earlier, he'd said: "I've kind of tried to blank it, thinking about how I identify, because I feel like I just think about it too much. I think about it into oblivion! I'm like, 'What does it mean to be human?' and I have an existential crisis every day. I think at the moment, because it's always subject to change, I identify as kind of more non-binary, but male-presenting."

Non-binary. Intersex. Gender Queer. Non-gendered. Androgynous. Tangata ira Tane. Fa'afafine. Male. Female. Pick your place on the spectrum - but don't assume everyone wants to be defined by its traditional extremes. Last July, Statistics New Zealand announced a world first. "Gender diverse" would join "male" and "female" categories in a new gender-identity classification system that it recommended all government organisations adopt for official statistical use.

It is 21 years since Carterton residents voted Georgina Beyer the world's first openly transsexual mayor; 17 years since she beat broadcaster Paul Henry to win the Wairarapa seat for Labour, becoming the world's first transsexual MP.

Last year, Caitlyn Jenner (Keeping up with the Kardashians) announced her arrival on the cover of Vanity Fair and Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black) starred on the cover of Time magazine.

We're all totally grown up about this stuff now, right?

And yet, in February, the Ponsonby Rd Pride Parade that's so mainstream the Defence
Force has been marching in it since 2013, was delayed by hundreds of No Pride In Prison protesters concerned at the mistreatment of trans women in men's prisons.

And yet, in order for trans people to access some medical services, they are almost always required to be diagnosed with "gender dysphoria" - a clinical mental disorder.

The country's only gender reassignment surgeon retired in 2014. Back then, the Ministry of Health was funding just four sex changes every two years (there were, at that time, 61 people on the waiting list). Unisex toilets are not yet a norm. Our schools still make students wear "girls" and "boys" uniforms.

In 2006, another world first: the Human Rights Commission launched an inquiry into discrimination experienced by transgender people. It met with 200 people; the youngest aged 11, the oldest in their 70s. It found courage, determination and "extraordinary resilience".

It also found this: "Trans people in New Zealand face discrimination that undermines the ability to have a secure family life, to find accommodation, to work, to build a career and to participate in community life. At worst, there was constant harassment and vicious assault."

A transgender character being played by a transgender actor on prime time New Zealand television? Huge.

"I think there's this perception the 'fight' is over, particularly by older people," says Keddy. "There's this focus 'well, 40 years ago, or however long ago it was, it was illegal to be gay'. That keeps getting brought up. It's good to appreciate that, but things are moving fast, there are new challenges that need to be addressed and it doesn't suit anyone to be complacent."

He's talking about why he joined the No Pride in Prisons march a few weeks ago. It is the most political he gets in this interview, conducted at the publicist's house (his flat is the proverbial train station, he says - fine for photographs and video, but not an in-depth interview). He drinks hot water with lemon and waits, politely, for a pause in the conversation before tackling a cinnamon brioche. Yes, he says, he'd love to take home the leftovers ("that's something I've learned about flatting - take what's offered!").

For the two hours Canvas spends with Keddy, he is smart and articulate; thoughtful and forthright. He is a 20-year-old who, perhaps, has no idea how many people are going to want a piece of him when he becomes that most Kiwi of celebrities: a Shortland Street star.

Before this interview, production company South Pacific Pictures forwarded multiple documents outlining "problematic" issues around media coverage of transgender people.

They included things like the use of a person's old name ("dead-naming"), the inclusion of childhood "before" photographs, and the description of body parts and clothing as "male" or "female".

Some concepts to consider: A person is not "born a woman", rather "assigned female at birth". Sexuality is not the same as gender identity. Gender identity is not defined by
physical attributes.

And some statistics: In a 2012 survey of New Zealand secondary school students, four out of every 100 reported they were either transgender or not sure about their gender.

Approximately 40 per cent of those had significant depressive symptoms and nearly half had self-harmed in the past year.

Keddy grew up on Wellington's south coast, in the giant converted warehouse his film industry parents, Karen Gleave and Tony Keddy had bought. Photo / Michael Craig
Keddy grew up on Wellington's south coast, in the giant converted warehouse his film industry parents, Karen Gleave and Tony Keddy had bought. Photo / Michael Craig

Cole Meyers, 29, who has been brought in as a consultant by South Pacific Pictures, says Keddy's recruitment is a big deal in a world where "cisgender" (or non trans) actors and writers are still routinely playing and scripting transgender roles.

"Some people will say 'isn't it good we're seeing anything at all' - and I'd say yeah, but we're at a point where we have so few trans narratives and every single one has a huge amount of power."

Keddy grew up on Wellington's south coast, in the giant converted warehouse his film industry parents, Karen Gleave and Tony Keddy, had bought before their eldest's birth.

"For a lot of my developmental phases, I was an only child. My parents did a lot of travelling with me when I was quite young, so I was quite a bossy and in control and hanging-out-with-the-adults kind of kid."

He went to Wellington High School. "Co-ed, no uniform ... big scope to identify and put on clothes and take them off and put on different clothes. I remember this period of time when I was 15-ish and I was wearing all boy's clothes for a year and then I completely flipped and wore dresses for six months, and that was very formative for me to be able to do that."

He played soccer and netball, studied sculpture, photography and design in Year 13, and moved north to study at Auckland University's Elam School of Fine Arts.

"I could never conquer art and I think that's what kept me going towards it, I could never nail it. I was really good at English and art history, so I always knew I could do academia. I think I pursued art because I wanted to try something I wasn't necessarily amazing at."

He raises an eyebrow.

"The hard road? I've been told I always pick the hard road! I look at it as what I'm going to get the most out of, or where there's most potential to grow from."

Keddy has no acting experience. At his audition ("a happy accident - my friend Ella told me about the part") he had to confess he'd never watched Shortland Street.

And now he has a 12-month contract with a major storyline. This is no token, tick-the-minority-box casting.

Two months into filming, and Keddy has yet to watch himself on screen.
Two months into filming, and Keddy has yet to watch himself on screen.

Maxine Fleming, producer, says, "We thought it was timely. Other shows are doing this, Transparent, Orange is the New Black. It just seemed very much at the forefront of the zeitgeist. Shortland Street, in its own way, has always explored diversity in the community. It seemed like the right time to do it."

The show has featured guest transgender characters. But this is different.

"This is absolutely the first time we've explored the transition of the character.

"We wanted to explore more realistically, and fully, the journey the character goes on, You can't do that if you've only got someone for two weeks. We can do drama with them, we can do comedy - it doesn't have to all be about the fact that Blue is transgender."

The audience first meets Blue in the Shortland Street Hospital, where his mum, Kate (played by another show newcomer Laurel Devenie) is a temp nurse. The child she named Bluebell is struggling with puberty. He corrects his mum when she calls him "she" or "her". He identifies as a boy, and he wants hormone therapy and surgery.

How closely does that mirror Keddy's situation? The question, of course, is off-limits, but the response is matter-of-fact: "I'd prefer not to talk about it, because I don't think it's essential. I think it's important to understand that when people might not present 100 per cent as how they feel, they can still be valid in feeling like they do, and they still need to be respected."

Two months into filming, and Keddy has yet to watch himself on screen.
Two months into filming, and Keddy has yet to watch himself on screen.

Blue, says Keddy, is having a much harder time being a teen than the person playing him did.

"I feel like for me, there was always just a little bit of discord. It wasn't like I felt really abject in my own body, it was just something was a little bit off, and I didn't realise for a long time ...

"I just started thinking along the path of maybe I don't have to feel 100 per cent fine with what I was born with. That, I think, freed up a lot of things for me, and made a lot of things make sense. It's never really been anything to do with angst, like I've never felt angry or unhappy about it - it's just like there were some things I could change to make myself more happy.

"I guess I'm really lucky. It's never been terribly traumatic or anything. That's a really big credit to my parents - for making an environment where if something is a little bit different, it's not a thing."

Shortland Street fans are fierce and loyal. They cry when characters are killed off (TVNZ had to set up a tribute page for the fictional Dr Sarah Potts) and they spew unpunctuated vitriol on the show's Facebook page when they don't like someone (a typical, recent example: "she sucks at acting and is ugly when she's angry I just don't like her she's one of those annoying people you wonder why came on").

Appearing on the show is a gateway to newspaper social pages and as-seen-in-the-supermarket Instagram shots from an iPhone-toting public.

Is Keddy ready to become the poster boy for transgender teens?

"I think it's worrying there needs to be a poster boy - that individual stories can't be valid in their own right."

Two months into filming, and Keddy has yet to watch himself on screen.

"I do really like being on television, but I'm not sure I'd be terribly good in theatre. Every day, on set, I get told I need to speak louder!"

At work, he shares a dressing room with Reid Walker (who plays Dr Chris Warner's son, Harry) and 10-year-old Duane Evans jnr (Michael). He reads constantly between filming and describes himself as "the least extroverted actor out there".

Home is an inner city flat with seven others. Elam graduates, musicians and stylists who have converted two rooms into an art gallery; who have a television set only to play Xbox. That life, he says, "doesn't really cross over with the Shortland Street world".

Keddy has taken a year out of art school to take on the role he won over around a dozen other actors. Why is he right for it?

"Trans roles should be played by trans people wherever possible," says his friend, Magdalena Hoult. "Lived experience is more valuable than theoretical research."

She doesn't fear a backlash - Keddy is, she says, smart and aware. "People are becoming more comfortable with notions of fluidity, I think. They're able to change the pronouns they use for someone and it isn't some massive feat. That has a lot to do with exposure and the internet. There are pretty few excuses to be uninformed nowadays."

- Canvas

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 25 Oct 2016 21:31:48 Processing Time: 644ms