By Annemarie Quill and Georgina Harris

Jhordynn Morgan-Peirce doesn't pay attention to the looks she gets when out in public, but it bothers her family.

"For my family it's extremely annoying and aggravating for them. Also the weird thing for them is that I'm fine with it. They think I should be defending myself but why would I let it ruin my day, ruin my outings. I can't control other people and their thoughts, and I can't help if it makes them feel uncomfortable."

The reason for this is because three years ago Jhordynn, 22, started presenting as a woman.

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Jhordynn was brought up in Tauranga but moved back to Rotorua, where her family are from, when she started transitioning at 19.

She says she came out as gay at 12, a year after her father died. Her sister also died around this time.

These tragic events have helped her become the person she is today she says.

"There are everyday challenges other people can't relate to [as a transgender person]. I love who I am, and because I'm such a strong person having lost people so early on in my life, I am able to overcome."

Jhordynn says there is a wide-ranging lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Rotorua, but there needs to be more awareness of transgender people.

"Everyone needs to be educated. They need to unlearn all the bad stuff what they've been labelling me...if people approach me in a respectful and genuine manner I'd be happy to educate them."

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She says she has thought about moving to Auckland but at the moment her financial situation and career mean that is currently not viable. Cities like Auckland seem to be more open, "different atmosphere, different cities", she says.

When asked about celebrities such as Caitlin Jenner and the fact there is a transgender person on Shortland Street Jhordynn says she thinks it's cool.

"It does raise awareness for the greater community. It makes me happy we have representation on our national television."

However, finding a relationship, and the right one at that, is really tricky. 'It's difficult as I'm not looking for a good time, I'm looking for a long time."

Despite all the tough times and challenges, Jhordynn has found support in her local medical centre as she begins to get help regarding medication and transitioning. "I just thought to myself, why haven't I done this before? It's okay to go to the doctor to ask for help and support."

Tauranga local Kat Clarke, who started the Tauranga Pryde group in 2014 for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community aged 14 to 25 years, says that more than half the group, more than 30 people, is made up of people who identify as transgender.

Clarke, a sociology student at Bay of Plenty Polytechnic who identifies as a gay woman, says the number of transgender people in the polytechnic has prompted her to start another group there.

"There are many transgender students. Some have come here because they dropped out of school or college."

Clarke says in her generation, transgenders are more accepted but in Tauranga as a whole not so much.

"I think Tauranga is still very conservative, particularly can be in the older population. But even in the younger population I have heard so many stories of bullying, people dropping out of schools, and discrimination over issues like toilets and uniform policy."

"Sometimes it is because people just do not have knowledge, of how to refer to people, it can be as simple as confusion over pronouns."

Awareness is growing, says Clarke.

"Celebrities have a lot to do with that... Caitlin Jenner, Laverne Cox from Orange is the New Black."

More accessible information on the internet, as well as laws against discrimination, are also prompting more people to be more open about their gender, says Clarke.

Kate Harper was born Zak, but began the transition to become a woman while still at school. She is one of Tauranga's growing number of people who identify as transgender or gender fluid.

"I accept who I am, but sometimes I hate with a passion being transgender because it is just so hard. I wish I had been born a woman of course, as that is who I am, but because I was born with the body of a man, I know life would have been so much easier if I had been a straight guy, or a gay guy."

There is, says Kate, a lot of misunderstanding about trans people, and more so outside Auckland and Wellington, but in the past year this is changing.

Kate welcomes more awareness but would like transgender people to be just treated as "a normal part of the community" without any stigma or celebrity focus.

"I feel like this is our time. We are entering the beginning of a time when transgender people are gradually becoming more accepted. To be gay now, it is normal, accepted, whereas only in the last generation, gays would have been where transgender people are now, often misunderstood and marginalised."

Gender dysphoria, when a person is very uncomfortable with the sex or gender they were assigned at birth, is experienced by transgender people, and can lead to anxiety and stress if not recognised, says the New Zealand Mental Health Foundation.

This combined with potential social isolation, rejection and discrimination which many transgenders experience mean they are more likely to present with mental health problems, including suicidal thoughts.

Findings from a large 2011 US survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality concluded that anti-transgender bias lead to some devastating outcomes for study participants. Among the findings were that 78 per cent of transgender individuals in school reported "alarming" rates of harassment due to their identity; 90 per cent reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job; and 41 per cent reported attempting suicide (compared to 1.6 per cent of the general population).

Kate tried to kill herself at 15.

"I was hiding who I really was. I always felt like a girl. I would hang out with girls as friends and get crushes on boys. When I was 13, I came across Chen Lili, she was well known at the time as a Chinese trans woman who was a singer and model and competed in Miss Universe. I googled a lot, and I felt like that is what I was.

Her experience at a Bay co-educational high school was hard.

"I wasn't bullied physically, but people would ask if I was gay. Or mocked my high voice."

She moved to an all-boys boarding school,

"I felt like I had to google to know how to talk to these boys about rugby. I had a gay friend and we talked about the Kardashians."

It was in this environment that Kate finally came out as transgender, she started to take hormones to block testosterone and legally changed her name.

"It must be one of the most extreme ways to come out as transgender- I did it in the common room at school in front of the First XV. The boys were surprisingly accepting, they asked questions like not in a rude way, but just wanting to understand."

Kate's experience of high school rules has been less accommodating. Wanting to return to her high school in the Bay she was told that the school was ''not comfortable" with her coming to school as Kate and dressing in a girl's uniform.

Her boarding school said it could not "cater" for her needs. In the end, she became a day student at the boarding school, living with friends as Kate, but dressing up each day as Zak to go to school. It was a double life.

"Kate was my legal name which was weird if we had a relief teacher, they would call the register in class and when they got to Kate they would look really confused."

It was only at university in Wellington where Kate could fully be herself, although her hopes of being accepted as female were dashed in the first few days when some people from her old school told others.

"Hey, you see that girl, she used to be a boy."

Now back in Tauranga, she lives as Kate and likes to "fly under the radar", is working and hoping to be a medic.

Where to get help:
http://www.lifeline.co.nz Lifeline 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
http://www.youthline.co.nz Youthline 0800 376 633
http://www.kidsline.org.nz Kidsline 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
http://whatsup.co.nz Whatsup 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
http://depression.org.nz Depression helpline 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
http://www.rainbowyouth.org.nz Rainbow Youth (09) 376 4155
http://www.samaritans.org.nz Samaritans 0800 726 666
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.