COMMENT:

In every fight for human rights that I can think of, people motivated by fear, uncertainty, and – in some cases – bigotry, have argued that the status quo must be maintained for the good of society. Terrible things would happen, they argued, if black and white children were allowed to attend the same schools. The very social fabric would unravel if women were allowed to vote. Tempests would ravage the land if gay people were allowed to marry their same-sex partners.

With the power of hindsight, it is easy to see that such fears were unfounded, and largely ridiculous. Yet, these arguments were put forward with such ferocity and bombast that in many cases they delayed social progress for years, decades, or even centuries. Meanwhile, oppressed groups suffered.

New Zealand has often been at the forefront of human rights movements. We are rightly proud of some of our great human rights achievements. This week, however, prejudice and intolerance trampled all over our commitment to human rights. With the deferral of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Bill, we sent a message to transgender people that their rights to dignity and self-expression are not important enough to change an archaic and discriminatory law. Or at least, not yet.

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The changes the bill proposed would have affected a small segment of the population, giving transgender people the right to change the sex recorded on their birth certificates without having to undergo a long, expensive and undignified process through the Family Court.

It is already possible to change the sex on your passport or driver's licence through a basic administrative process, but currently, medical evidence is required to change your birth certificate, meaning transgender people must endure an invasion of their privacy in order to be legally recognised as the gender they identify with, and assuming that medical intervention is required to be transgender.

As with any community, there are different approaches that transgender people take in expressing their identity. While some may opt for surgery (if they're able to afford it – the decades-long waiting times for state-funded gender surgeries can only be described as reprehensibly farcical) others may undergo other procedures, take hormones, or decide against medical intervention entirely. The idea that a transgender person must undergo a medical "transition" in order to live their life as the gender that they identify with is now very outdated. And yet the law still labours under that misconception.

The law is clearly not working, and changing it should have been a no-brainer. There is likely more at play. An ugly debate about trans rights has been raging recently, particularly since the implosion of the Pride Parade. A motivated fringe cabal of strange bedfellows including extremist feminists and at least one far right lobby group capitalised on the publicity surrounding the fallout and began to broaden the discussion to question transgender people's right to their identity. With Minister Tracey Martin's announcement that the Births, Deaths and Marriages Bill will be deferred, under the guise of a supposedly "flawed" select committee process that was nonetheless legal and democratic, it seems that their tactics have been successful.

Some of those tactics have made my blood boil. One of the most disgusting arguments that has been made is that women will not be safe in bathrooms if transgender people are given the legal right to self-identification. This is despite the fact that transgender people already use women's facilities and research has shown there's no evidence transgender people using public toilets that align with their gender identity increases safety risks.

NZ First MP and Minister for Children Tracey Martin has deferred a bill change that would allow transgender people the right to change the sex recorded on birth certificate. Photo / Mark Mitchell
NZ First MP and Minister for Children Tracey Martin has deferred a bill change that would allow transgender people the right to change the sex recorded on birth certificate. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Also, the last time I checked, there were no security guards at the doors of women's toilets. If a predator of any gender decides to commit a crime in a women's bathroom, an "M" on their birth certificate certainly isn't going to stop them.

Another argument that has been made against allowing trans people to self-identity is that male prisoners could change their birth certificates to be housed inside a women's prison. Indeed, Martin raised this scenario on Q+A this week. Given we already impinge upon the freedoms of prisoners in various ways, surely additional safeguards could be put in place in justice settings to prevent male prisoners from taking advantage whilst allowing transgender prisoners to be treated with dignity. Perhaps the current Family Court process could be retained for prisoners only.

Martin also brought up the example of a transgender girl enrolling at a girls' school as an example of something that could create legal fishhooks under a self-identification law. Transgender youth have been enrolling at single-sex schools for a while now, often with little fanfare and a lot of support from school communities. The sky hasn't fallen.

And as for the idea that teenage boys will go to the trouble of disingenuously changing their birth certificates (which currently and likely always would legally require their guardians' permission) so they can enrol at a girls' school … come on. Can you imagine the ridicule a teen boy would receive from his peers if he opted to enrol at Girls' High rather than Boys' High? And if a group of boys decided to try it on for laughs, what parent would allow such tomfoolery?

If these arguments seem ludicrous; that's because they are. They're irresponsible, irrational and have the potential to be disastrously harmful. Transgender youth have some of the worst self-harm and suicide statistics of the entire youth population. The people campaigning against making it easier for them to be who they are would do well to remember that.

The Minister wants further public consultation before she'll allow the bill to progress. Let's give it to her. In a few decades, the decision made this week will be seen as an embarrassment. Those who have pushed for it will be on the wrong side of history. Feel free to drop the Minister a line to encourage her to put New Zealand back on the right side of the battle for dignity, equality and human rights.