'Never been a better or a more dangerous time to be trans' - Kiwis tell their stories

Joanna Wane
Joanna Wane

Senior Feature Writer Lifestyle Premium, NZ Herald

Joanna Wane previews a new series about the ordinary and extraordinary lives of transgender New Zealanders across the generations.

A fortnight is a long time in gender politics. At Auckland’s Big Gay Out in March, politicians of all persuasions were falling over themselves to publicly declare their support for the trans and wider rainbow community. Yes, even from the party for people who self-identify as National.

Dressed in a foam of lavender tulle, Brady Peeti bossed up the main stage like a kween. “Let’s go, girls,” she purred into the microphone, channelling her inner Shania Twain. And man, that woman can sing.

Two weekends later, it was raining tomato juice.

Supporters of British anti-trans campaigner Posie Parker were outnumbered by the counter-protestors who shut down her rally in Albert Park, but the backlash was swift and it was brutal. Analysts at the Disinformation Project reported a significant spike in online hate directed towards the trans community and an escalation of violent language that director Kate Hannah described as “genocidal”, defined in this context as denying the right of a group of people to exist.

Brady Peeti: “We do have to walk through fire, but I think our way of stepping forward is to turn off those messages and not let it deter us." Photo / Babiche Martens
Brady Peeti: “We do have to walk through fire, but I think our way of stepping forward is to turn off those messages and not let it deter us." Photo / Babiche Martens

Peeti (Ngāti Maniapoto, Te Ati Haunui-a-Pāpārangi) was there that day, too, filming for the NZ Herald’s new online video series, TransGenerations. Shaneel Lal, the 23-year-old activist who organised the Albert Park protest, is one of six transgender Kiwis who tell their stories — from very different generational perspectives. The oldest, Lexie, is in her late 70s and married with an adult son.

Peeti, who hosts the series, also revisits her own search for identity and acceptance, from growing up in Timaru and trying to suppress her “feminine energy” to coming out to her parents as a trans woman in her early 30s. The first of eight weekly episodes drops today.

The series is more personal than political. Intimate and unapologetic, it’s a moving insight into the extraordinary challenges and everyday ordinariness of life in the maelstrom of what’s become such a divisive and inflammatory issue, from the debate over pronouns and puberty blockers to qualification criteria in competitive sport.

Executive producer Ramon Te Wake (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Whātua) says the aim is both to document Aotearoa’s trans history and to unravel the entrenched misconceptions that surround it. While many of the stories are confronting — sharing hormones because accessing treatment was so difficult; turning to sex work because no one would hire them — the trajectory is a more positive one, as each generation creates a smoother pathway for the next.

“Gone are the days when talking about our trauma was front and centre,” Te Wake says. “We’re trying to turn the page and show that actually we’re sons and daughters who want love, like anybody else, and who work hard like anybody else. We like to laugh. And we like to be free, just like anybody else.”

Of course, it should go without saying that all trans experiences (and all trans views) aren’t the same. Not everyone featured in the series has medically transitioned, or ever intends to. Some, like Peeti, are femme; some aren’t fussed with makeup at all. Most are wāhine Māori. Being Pākehā, it seems, is an advantage even when you’re trans.

Gemmah, who’s in her 60s, is a former sex worker who served time in prison. She’s now a trans advocate within the justice system and has formed a kapa haka group that performed this year at the Big Gay Out. Phylesha is a human rights activist. Sarah is believed to be the first transgender coach of a national sports team. Rhi is a trans male. Shaneel, who goes by the pronouns they/them, led the campaign to end conversion therapy in New Zealand.

Ramon Te Wake says the trans community is connected by lived experience, and the need to be accepted and loved. “Those things are solid. That's what brings us together. But we're not all the same." Photo / Babiche Martens
Ramon Te Wake says the trans community is connected by lived experience, and the need to be accepted and loved. “Those things are solid. That's what brings us together. But we're not all the same." Photo / Babiche Martens

Te Wake, a film-maker and performer, was one of the presenters on Takatāpui, Whakaata Māori’s first LGBT show. (Traditionally, “takatāpui” referred to a close companion of the same sex but has been adopted as an inclusive term for Māori across the rainbow spectrum. “Everybody has someone who’s taka in their family,” Te Wake says, with a laugh.)

The trans community is connected by lived experience, she says, and the need to be accepted and loved. “Those things are solid. That’s what brings us together. But we’re not all the same. Some of us have been loved. Some of us were kicked out of home as teenagers and found our family on the streets. Some of us have created businesses. Some of us have had children.

“The whole infatuation with our bodies and the sexual objectification of trans people has been disastrous. There’s still this ridiculous idea of men dressed up as women in bad wigs who go into bathrooms to harass young women and kids. That’s why it’s so important to dismantle the stereotypes and misconceptions that have haunted us for decades and are part of the reason why we’re still fighting for our lives today.”

The concept for the series pre-dates Covid, when Te Wake and producer Naashon Zalk were living in neighbouring apartments on Karangahape Rd. Te Wake was a fan of Zalk’s 2021 video series K’Rd Chronicles, documenting stories of inner-city homelessness, and the original plan was for her to host TransGenerations. However, the series was repeatedly rejected for funding. By the time it finally got the green light, Te Wake was busy filming her own TV show, The Queen, The Club, The Boy, The Girl And Everything In Between, a comedy/drama series about a son reconciling with his father, who happens to be a famous drag queen.

Te Wake had acted alongside Peeti in Gurl, Mika X’s 2020 short film based on the life of trans icon Carmen Rupe, and seen her steal the show as House Mother on Whakaata Māori’s hit bilingual series Ahikāroa. So she knew Peeti was a natural performer. “Brady has such generosity of spirit. She lights up the room when she walks in.”

But Peeti’s first hosting role also required the ability to navigate generational fractures within the trans community itself.

“Being able to speak to all the generations isn’t easy,” says Te Wake. “There have been confrontations, around ideas and language and the evolution of identity. People are up in arms about all sorts of things. So you needed somebody who was able to communicate effectively with the young ones and have respect and care for the older generation at the forefront — all our trans aunties and trans uncles, whose blood, sweat and tears were put on the line and sometimes get left out of the fold.”

As a millennial, Peeti came of age in what she calls the middle phase, where gay and trans people were acknowledged but still subject to ridicule and embarrassment. “We forged the way for Gen Z to be able to just live authentically, but Lexie’s generation forged the way for me just to exist and walk down the street.” It wasn’t until she moved to Auckland that she began to see “brown trans women living their lives and being as fearless and as powerful as they wanted”. These days, she says, “The kids are like, ‘I am what I am. Deal with it.’ And people do.”

Peeti, who’s 35, spent a few years living as a gay man before transitioning and has the full support of her parents. All they want, she says, is for her to be safe. The final episode of the series shows her returning to Timaru as a guest speaker at her old high school. She and the crew had braced themselves for some unpleasantness or even open hostility when they were filming on the streets. It never eventuated. “People minded their business. That’s what we all need to learn how to do.”

As it turned out, the students were much more interested in her career in the arts than her trans identity. Last year, she played the leading lady in the musical Jekyll & Hyde, and she’s just finished performing in a new theatre show, Kōpū, an ensemble piece celebrating the voices of wāhine Māori, at Auckland’s Te Pou theatre. Even as an awkward adolescent, she never felt physically threatened. “I’m big and I’m brown and I guess I have a good resting bitch face; you know not to mess with me.”

The younger generation’s openness to gender fluidity, where transitioning medically is viewed as optional, has caused some of the deepest divisions within the community. Some traditional allies in the older lesbian and feminist circles have also fallen away. Even using the term transgender, rather than transsexual, is a relatively new concept. While Peeti understands those tensions, she takes a more inclusive approach. “If you’re calling yourself trans, you’re trans,” she says. “I’m not going to question anybody’s right to be in our group, because everybody questions our rights to be in any group ever.”

Te Wake turned 47 on the day of the Posie Parker rally. She chose not to go. There were better ways to celebrate her birthday. “God bless our community for showing up and being loud, for not giving in and being visible,” she says. “But I find it very hard to buy into the noise. I think it distracts us. It riles us up and then it divides us. I think that’s the aim, and it works.”

Like Te Wake, Peeti refuses to engage with the vitriolic content online or be drawn into confrontations and charged debates. In some ways, she says in the opening episode of TransGenerations, there’s never been a better time to be trans. Yet, it’s never been more dangerous. The intensity of anger from both sides at the rally left her shaken.

“We do have to walk through fire, but I think our way of stepping forward is to turn off those messages and not let it deter us. We only get ourselves into a deeper circle of anger if we continue to fight with these people. I have wonderful people around me. I have projects coming up that I’m really excited about. I have work to do, I can’t sit around being scared or angry. I just don’t have time for that.”