Whangarei transgender woman and human-rights advocate Melanie Payne talks with Lindy Laird about coming out, feeling absolutely fabulous in her own skin, and New Zealand's groundbreaking official recognition of gender diversity.

Melanie Payne turns heads as she strolls along Whangarei's main drag.

She's a woman of a certain age, blonde, blinged up and leggy, those long slender legs lengthened even further by a skimpy skirt and killer heels.

Her flamboyant glam-tart look wouldn't be out of place in a club but it's a mid-week winter afternoon. Melanie has suggested the walk might give us a taste of what she deals with every time she goes out.

Melanie Payne turns heads as she strolls along Whangarei's main drag. PHOTO / Michael Cunningham
Melanie Payne turns heads as she strolls along Whangarei's main drag. PHOTO / Michael Cunningham
Melanie Payne turns heads as she strolls along Whangarei's main drag. PHOTO / Michael Cunningham
Melanie Payne turns heads as she strolls along Whangarei's main drag. PHOTO / Michael Cunningham

Reaction ranges from furtive glances, to grins, to jeers - "did you see I just got a verbal from those gentlemen sitting on the bench?" - or people smiling at her directly in a "hey there, good on ya, girl!" manner.

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Generally, the positive experiences outweigh negative and often outright abusive stuff Melanie gets.

"I've got an image, I attract attention," she shrugs over coffee a short while later.

I demonstrate the negative side of that equation - epitomising the ignorance Melanie faces almost daily - by asking if she dresses like a, er, hooker to be ultra-provocative, to spur that attention.

She is aghast, insulted, hurt by the comparison, and disagrees with it. But she doesn't miss a beat and graciously says, "I certainly don't have any issue with my chosen dress sense being up for analysis".

Having been a man for nearly 50 years, she's delighted to get those legs out of trousers, to celebrate a sexy feminine side. And perhaps there's a sense of making up for lost time, of being girly while she can, she muses.

Later in our chat, Melanie rightly points out a couple of my questions reflect "precisely the sort of negative stereotypes that are often inflicted on gender diverse people as a group".

One of the first questions transgenders often get asked, she says, is "when did you know"?

It's a question that implies there was always, say, a girl growing up in a boy's body. Yet a child doesn't know what she doesn't know.

In Melanie's case it was not so much when she knew but when she started getting frocked-up and stopped being Melvyn that was, literally, the turning point.

There isn't a one-size-fits-all explanation for why some people's gender cries out for reassignment, realignment, redefinement. Melanie is strongly opposed to "tick box" explanations and approaches.

She does not speak on behalf of the "third gender", only for herself, and the analogy of a child trapped in the wrong sex is not right for her.

As a 23-year old, Melvyn Payne was a prison guard in one of Her Majesty's toughest UK prisons, Long Lartin.

"I knew that wasn't me. But like everyone, you try various things through life. It's part and parcel of life's experiences.

"You try to do the macho thing because as far you know, that's what you are. I just knew that I didn't fit in as a male, something wasn't right.

"There are lots of transitions along the journey, and there's a lot of regret at what might have been."

Melvyn, as she was then, went on to work in construction project management and property development, and emigrated to Whangarei in 2001.

"It wasn't in my life at that time," she says of her transformation.

She would occasionally dress as a woman - the most comfortable, the first time being the most "this is the real me" she'd ever felt in her life.

"That's when I knew."

But for a long time she only came out as a woman during trips to Auckland or overseas.

"Auckland is not a safe city by any means but physical safety wasn't the issue, it was anonymity I needed."

She has been a proud Kiwi since 2004, with a passport that names her as a woman, in a country where, for the first time anywhere in the world, the words "gender diverse" have recently joined "male" or "female" as classification choices on official government forms and in Statistics NZ data collection.

That bureaucratic change announced two weeks ago has flown under the radar.

"We should be so proud of this country. How Kiwi is that, though? We create a piece of internationally groundbreaking legislation and no one thinks to mention it."

It's another reason she loves life in New Zealand, especially Whangarei. When she's overseas if people ask, she proudly tells them she's from Whangarei, a beautiful little city where Melanie is thriving as a person.

But at street level, is Whangarei a safe place for a gender diverse person? Is New Zealand a warm, open, embracing society where everyone is free to express who they are? Sadly, no, Melanie says.

She worries about vulnerable young or newly trans people possibly experiencing trauma, getting treated thuggishly.

They are lucky, though, in Whangarei to have a high calibre of police, can expect to be treated well by police and can go to them at any time, Melanie stresses.

"Never feel afraid to go the police if you need their help, I can't speak highly enough of them."

Melanie is an educator, presenting gender diverse perspectives to NorthTec social work degree students and other groups. She also works as a volunteer with the Whangarei Migrant Centre.

She was "born with" an innate sense of everyone's right to celebrate their individuality.
"Anti-racist, anti-war, anti-sexist, pro-civil rights - all these things do relate, they relate to people being able to be who they are and live their lives."

Gender diversity has been called the last civil right to win, she says, yet "third gender" diversity is recorded as far back as 4000 years.

"In my experienced view, being transgender is not an illness, and far from needing 'treatment'. What we need is a cultural change in society to recognise that all human beings should have the right to live their lives however they choose within the laws of the land they live in.

"It's my life and I am just a diverse part of what makes up this wonderful world that we are all entitled to share."

A societal emphasis on the term transsexual - often used to define pre or post-surgery - is the result of governments not recognising gender diversity and needing a physical classification, Melanie says.

Surgery might change the outward shape of the body, but not the soul. She hasn't had reassignment surgery or hormone treatment and is, she reckons, too long in the tooth to take on that journey now.

We talk about celebrity and former US athlete Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlyn Jenner in high-profile splendour. It might have put a spotlight on trans, but Jenner is not your usual experience, Melanie points out dryly.

"She got a $2 million makeover from an American magazine to be on the cover, all I get from the Advocate is a mochaccino at the Butter Factory," she quips.

She's kind, intelligent, quirky as all-get-out, courageous and rather fabulous - but can get mad as hell that "culture has this obsession with tick-boxes, and so many people don't fit those boxes."

Because she feels "perfectly ordinary". This is where she is now, and she's happy in her own skin.

"It is not an alter ego. I don't get up in the morning and dress up. I get up and get dressed.

"It just feels so natural to me and yet to other people it seems incredibly unnatural."