More than meets the eye to new Labour hopeful

By Patrice Dougan

Candidate says despite transgender focus, she remains committed to social issues.

Labour candidate Kelly Ellis, left, and wife Kelly Ewing. Photo / Kenny Rodger
Labour candidate Kelly Ellis, left, and wife Kelly Ewing. Photo / Kenny Rodger

Transgender lawyer Kelly Ellis is in a talkative mood, despite a hectic day balancing court with media interviews after her selection as the Labour Party candidate for Whangarei.

She can only laugh when asked if it's been a busy day, and describes the past six months campaigning for the nod to fight for the Whangarei seat as a rollercoaster ride.

But it's one that's not over yet, as the campaigning will start all over again in the run-up to the election in September.

She was "incredibly humbled" by the selection, and while she wouldn't say she was surprised by it, admitted "it could easily have gone another way, and that I might be looking for something to do with myself, and probably somewhere to hide, come Monday morning".

"Rarely am I lost for words, but when they announced that I'd gained the candidacy I choked up a bit," she said.

"There's just too many people to thank and all I could do, I suppose, is put a few dollars on the bar for my friends to have a drink, and now get on with the real business of sorting stuff out."

If Ms Ellis wins the seat she would become New Zealand's second transgender MP, following in the footsteps of Labour's former Wairarapa list MP Georgina Beyer. But she's not keen on the comparisons.

"Look, Georgina Beyer was fantastic, and a pioneer, but I'm a very different person from her," Ms Ellis said. "I come from a very different background. We do have very similar values but I think that if you start getting into comparisons it's a bit like saying, 'well, you're heterosexual so you must be like so-and-so because she's heterosexual', and if you're transgender, Labour, and a political aspirant therefore you must be like somebody who has those other three qualities.

"Here was I thinking that perhaps the media would have gone, 'hey, being transgender and trying to get into politics is not a novel thing, it's been done before', and yet inevitably there seems to be an enormous focus from the media on that.

"I won't say I'm getting grumpy about it or anything, because obviously the attraction from the media I have because of that, and I try to use it as best I can to articulate the policy things. But let's get real about it, who's interested in it? No one really. If anybody had a choice of, do you want to take an interest in that or do you want to take an interest in trying to get jobs and education and healthcare for our kids, well then, it's no contest. Everybody goes, 'oh shut up about the transgender business and let's look at these important things'."

Those important things she wants to tackle mostly stem from poverty and inequality. Her focus will be on developing Whangarei into a prosperous city where not only Kiwi families in Australia want to come back to, but Australians themselves want to move to. "If one addresses poverty then everything else falls into place.".

Transgender issues will not be the focus of her politics, she said. "There's always a bit of fear that I'm only there to promote trans issues. The reality is I'm looking at issues which affect everybody, whether they're trans, black, brown, yellow, white, male, gay, not gay, female, etc.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to throw my trans friends under the bus, but I'm not here pursuing a trans policy. I'm pursuing economic policies and social policies which will better this town."

However, she did admit that her "secret" trans agenda was in being openly transgender.

"I think that sends a powerful message that we're not all broken down hookers and sequined, stilettoed ladies of the night. Some of us actually have to mow our lawns and pay our schools fees and go to work in normal jobs."

She intends to keep her regular job as a criminal defence barrister while she's in politics. "I'm not one of these rich National Party people who can go full time on the hustings."

The move into politics came because she's "always been up for a challenge", she said. "I think we're a bit of a backwater [in Whangarei] and we need Wellington to pay attention to us," she said. "If we do that and turn it into a great town where my kids want to come and work, then I will have succeeded."

A life less ordinary

Name: Kelly Ellis
Age: 53
Family: Married to wife Kelly Ewing. Has two sons - Jack, 21, and Dave, 18 - from a previous relationship.
Location: Whangarei. Originally from Wellington.
Profession: Criminal defence barrister, newly selected Labour candidate for Whangarei.
Politics: A focus on addressing poverty issues and creating jobs for young people. Healthcare and equality issues are also high on the agenda.
Hobbies: Loves cooking and spending time with the family. Used to be a keen sailer and avid motorbike fan, but now lives a "pretty domestic" life.


Long road, but four wishes granted

At the age of just 4, Kelly Ellis knew exactly what she wanted in her life - someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for.

The desire came from spending a childhood in and out of foster care, before being placed in a Catholic orphanage in Wellington.

Now a criminal defence barrister and Labour candidate, she overcame a "pretty traumatic" start in life to accomplish those four wishes, including being kicked out of Onslow College at 16 and living on the streets.

As a "young rascal with no job and no home", she knocked on doors of big name companies to get a job, and went back to education, taking night classes, before becoming a journalist and then a lawyer.

Her hard-knock youth helped her "concentrate my mind at a pretty early age on the things that were important to me", she said, citing her family - wife Kelly Ewing, and two sons, Jack, 21, who lives in Auckland, and Dave, 18, who lives in Whangarei - as her main focus in life. But it hasn't always been easy. Ms Ellis was forced to divorce Ms Ewing when she changed her gender on her birth certificate to female because it was illegal for two women to be married.

They had a civil union, and re-married this year. They have been together for 12 years.

Her family supported her through her transition, which she said was a process over many years, after deciding to give up the "trappings" of masculinity.

- APNZ

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 21 Oct 2014 17:33:01 Processing Time: 583ms