Those who have until now hidden their gender diversity are taking courage from the transformation of Bruce into Caitlyn Jenner.

Neil Whitehead's wife died in a South Island hospital in 2007. With her death, Neil - husband and businessman - died as well. The couple had been together more than 30 years. She had just gone in for a small operation. But there were complications, which claimed her life. Whitehead lost his soul mate - and the only person who knew the truth hidden just beneath his surface.

"After her death the wheels of my life just fell off," says Whitehead, who works as a sign-maker in Kaiapoi, Canterbury.

The next four-and-a-half years passed in a booze-fuelled and drug-induced haze. Living from drink to drink, the man who was once Neil lost everything the couple had amassed over years. A successful business, three properties, financial security.

But the wholesale erosion of what had gone before proved a catalyst for profound change. From the ashes of Neil's old life emerged Lynda - the woman Whitehead had always been.

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Whitehead is among a small community that has for years lived in secret and fear, and fought for recognition.

But the tide is beginning to turn. Keeping up with the Kardashians' star and former Olympic champion Bruce Jenner's transformation into Caitlyn has been everywhere - the Vanity Fair magazine cover, the I am Cait television series and more.

And in a world first, "gender diverse" will now be included as an option for those filling in forms for Statistics New Zealand.

It is not without controversy, with claims "gender identity politics" are washing away rational science and the very nature of what makes a man and a woman.

But for people like Whitehead the institutional swing is another small victory on the ladder to equality.

All but one of my children has accepted me and they are glad that after so many years of alcoholism and depression I have finally found true happiness.

Initially shocked, Whitehead's wife eventually agreed to support her husband's journey towards authenticity.
Initially shocked, Whitehead's wife eventually agreed to support her husband's journey towards authenticity.

Whitehead's journey from male to female was long and for most part secret.

Aware of "being different" from around age 8, she was always fascinated with women. Her grandmother, a powerful woman who gifted Whitehead a love of classical music, literature and nature, was a major influence.

But gender dysphoria didn't appear to exist in northern England in the 1950s, and young Whitehead locked the feelings in a box of shame and confusion. It took decades for her to discover she wasn't alone.

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In the late 1980s, the tech-savvy designer grabbed the possibilities of the internet with both hands. It opened a new universe.

"I'd always felt incredibly isolated, but after discovering the internet I found out there were groups, even in New Zealand, for people like me."

Empowered, Neil "came out" to his wife. Although initially shocked, Whitehead's wife eventually agreed to support her husband's journey towards authenticity. But there was a catch.

"It had to be kept between the two of us," she says. "I couldn't be female in public.

"But I had her love and support, and I could live as a woman in the home, albeit behind locked doors and drawn curtains."

Together, they embarked on the transition. There were makeup lessons ("she taught me so much", says Whitehead), a new wardrobe, the creation of an external female identity for Whitehead. "It was so liberating," she says.

They lived like this for years - Whitehead would be Neil in public, Lynda at home.

But with the death of his wife, the only support system was ripped away and Whitehead was left to navigate uncharted seas, falling into a mire of alcoholism and anti-depressants.

A complete detox from alcohol, after nearly half a decade in a dismal blur of drink, helped to reveal the way ahead.

"I realised that my only salvation would be to embrace the part of my life that I'd been denying all along. Lynda had been there all those years, waiting to emerge, and I came to realise that the only way to survive this life was to embrace that part of my soul."

Whitehead now lives full time as Lynda. The transition involved coming out to clients, friends and family, making brave but tentative steps out of the house on shopping expeditions to the supermarket, meeting clients and travelling.

Most of Whitehead's family, including her five children, have accepted her change.

"All but one of my children has accepted me and they are glad that after so many years of alcoholism and depression I have finally found true happiness.

"My mother struggled with it for a while, but she eventually came to the realisation that Lynda was another me and was accepting."

She says her brother struggles with her change to Lynda at times, "but we still talk and I love him as always have and always will".

"All my other family in New Zealand and my late wife's family in the UK has accepted and is happy for me."

The path of many transgender people is fraught with (sometimes violent) discrimination, but Whitehead feels blessed to have not experienced any extremes of bigotry.

"I am very privileged and I acknowledge that every day," she says.

As a member of Agender New Zealand, the country's only dedicated transgender advocacy group, she helps fight for trans people less fortunate than her.

Gender diverse young people are over-represented in negative statistics such as mental health, addiction and suicide.

Bruce Jenner's transformation into Caitlyn has helped focus attention on the transgender community. Photo / Getty
Bruce Jenner's transformation into Caitlyn has helped focus attention on the transgender community. Photo / Getty

Jo-Anne Allan, classifications manager at Statistics New Zealand, says the department is feeling its way with the world-first change.

The phrase "gender diverse" was developed by the department through this process.

"We sought terminology from international sources, but didn't find anything that covered the range of people we sought to represent with the classification. The phrase worked best for our purposes."

Allan says Statistics New Zealand has had positive feedback since the announcement of the new classification.

"I'd say 99 per cent of it has been good," she says. "A lot of interest groups have popped info around this on their websites.

"We are committed to helping others work through the new standard so they can make sense of what it means."

Although the new gender identity classifications and the massive public interest in Jenner's transition from male to female may be raising awareness around transgender issues, the community still remains vulnerable.

And Rainbow Youth says it is only a first step towards understanding and inclusion.

"We believe a 'gender diverse' should be included automatically in all public systems, and hopefully Statistics New Zealand's move will highlight the need for other organisations to follow suit," says Duder.

That is happening to some extent.

In 2012, the Passport Office made it legal for transgender people to use an "X" classification to indicate they didn't fit within the traditional male and female gender binary.

And Allan says other Government departments have undergone training to help understand the new classification systems and the needs of the transgender community.

"This is all a good step in the right direction," says Tankersley. "There has been a concern from a public policy point of view that if you can't count members of a community, you can't understand them and help address their needs.

"It's an acknowledgment that transgender people are part of the fabric of New Zealand society."

Whitehead says organisations will have access to solid statistical information around the transgender community, which until now has been largely based on anecdote and guesswork.

"Contrary to some popular belief, transgender people have been around for millennia. Yet we are shunned, mistrusted and discriminated against," she says.

"All transgender people want it is to live their lives with acceptance, openly in peace and harmony with all. It's not too much to ask, is it?"

Power to change comes from within

Alison Mau has just published a book about Elizabeth Roberts, the first person in NZ to undergo sex reassignment surgery in 1969.
Alison Mau has just published a book about Elizabeth Roberts, the first person in NZ to undergo sex reassignment surgery in 1969.

Alison Mau says those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities are left to fight for their rights while "officialdom drags its heels".

Mau, who came out as bisexual in 2010, feels that the traditional male/female gender identity binary is being eroded in the 21st century.

"It's increasingly irrelevant, particularly to younger generations," she says. "There will always be those who insist we should stick to the binary because it makes them feel comfortable. People naturally dislike challenge and change, but although the tide can be slow to come in, you can't stop it altogether."

Mau, who turned 50 this year, split from Simon Dallow in 2009 after 13 years marriage and two children. She is now in a relationship with Karleen Edmonds.

She has just published a new book about Elizabeth Roberts — the first person in New Zealand to undergo sex reassignment surgery in 1969.

Starting life as a boy called Gary before transitioning to Elizabeth, First Lady provides an insightful account of Roberts' transition from male to female against a backdrop of conservative 1960s Kiwi ideals.

Mau's research gave her unique insights into the experiences of transgender people. She feels the Statistics New Zealand's new classification of "gender diverse" is a sign we are moving in the right direction when it comes to equality.

"I think it's a good first step. Too often the human rights issues faced by LGBT people are promoted and, hopefully, overcome by the might of their own activism, while officialdom drags its feet, only getting on board when faced with an inevitable outcome."

She says our Aussie neighbours could learn a thing or two from our attitude.

"We do pride ourselves on being ahead of the curve on human rights issues, especially when compared to some of our neighbours."

Mau feels many people would like to act considerately towards transgender people, they are often confused about the right way to approach certain situations.

"People just don't know how to approach the etiquette. What do I call him/her? What's okay to say? And what is not?"

But she says improved knowledge of the issues facing the transgender community will give members power to make change.

"The more we learn about the trans experience, the better equipped we are to act like compassionate human beings."

'Gender diverse' gets the big tick

The term 'gender diverse' will be used to help govt organisations collect information to best serve this previously 'invisible' community. Photo / iStock
The term 'gender diverse' will be used to help govt organisations collect information to best serve this previously 'invisible' community. Photo / iStock

The introduction of "gender diverse" as a Statistics New Zealand classification will act as an umbrella term for transgender and intersex people.

The term is separate from the sex classification (biological sex) and allows individuals to self identify their gender.

It will be used to help government organisations collect information to best serve this previously "invisible" community.

Within the new standard is a second-level classification with four categories so individuals can specify:

• Gender diverse not further defined
• Transgender male to female
• Transgender female to male
• Gender diverse not elsewhere classified