An illustraion in blue, pink and dark purple depicting a man looking worried as one side behind him shows ordinary trans life and the other shows neo-nazis, yelling and alarm bells

The Sunday EssayApril 23, 2023

The Sunday Essay: The longest month

An illustraion in blue, pink and dark purple depicting a man looking worried as one side behind him shows ordinary trans life and the other shows neo-nazis, yelling and alarm bells

I am a relatively public transgender person and I received more threats and open hostility in the last week of March than in the previous four years.’

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Sam Orchard

Istarted March at a conference about trauma. An epidemic, we agreed. Doctors, kaumātua, academics and frontline workers discussed the ways trauma disrupts at almost every level of the physical and emotional self, driving wedges between generations, families and communities, and how little resourcing we have to prevent trauma, let alone treat those left struggling in its wake. I left feeling the emotional dichotomy I often experience in these spaces; hopelessness at the enormity of a task our culture seems unwilling to address, and a little hopeful spark that I was not the only one doing my bit and chipping away regardless. 

Transitioning affects you in ways you don’t expect, or that I didn’t anyway. It’s been four years since the insistent, scratching feeling that I was somehow doing life wrong turned into the fully-formed realisation that I could change my gender if I wanted. I realised that I was playing a game with slightly different rules to everyone else, and I could make it easier if I played without being feminine as well. 

Despite my initial terror of losing everything I loved, the last four years has been a time of feeling like I was finally reading the instructions the right way up. Getting ready in the mornings ceased being a torturous process of trying to figure out how to woman correctly. The disordered eating that plagued me my entire adult life finally upped and quit as I stopped trying to press my body into a mould I didn’t want to be shaped by in the first place. Everything started to fit better, in every sense. 

My main feeling was one of release, letting go of a weight I had been carrying for so long I hadn’t realised how heavy it was. I became a better parent, partner and member of my community and followed a long-held dream of mine to retrain in mental health. As my understanding of myself grew, so did my confidence. 

An illustration showing a masculine person speaking to a client, then carrying laundry, sitting at a desk, reading a book to a child and then marching with trans flags

The initial terror after realising you can just let go of your gender is almost never about your decision. It’s about other people’s reactions. I grew up in the UK under Section 28, the legislation that prohibited any mention of LGBT+ identities in education, and I lived in a culture of entrenched bigotry and media hostility. I have experienced some transphobia from organisations and individuals, more passive-aggressive dehumanisation than outright hostility, and the work I do means I hear the reality of the costs borne by the people who let go of society’s demands. 

Following the passing of laws allowing same-sex marriage both here and abroad, there was a noticeable change in focus among conservatives towards transgender identities and gender diversity. Here in Aotearoa, it was concerning to see what was on the horizon as disinformation and fearmongering was laundered through far-right demagogues in the US and UK,  and landed on the opinion pages of “sensible” media outlets. Closer to home, in 2019 David Seymour hosted an event at Parliament featuring speakers widely considered to be anti-transgender. In 2021, formal requests for information were sent to schools by a ”women’s rights group” (who have not been public since), asking purportedly innocent questions about ākonga toilet habits. 

The anxiety about what might happen next would sometimes be a whole-body shock, suddenly plunged into ice water. I’d catch sight of headlines from the US and the UK and think “This could happen here”. I’d look at my son and wonder how safe he was going to be with a transgender parent. I was reassured over and over again not to be paranoid, not to worry, to just relax. After all, it wouldn’t happen here. 

It’s likely that prior to March, most people reading this had never heard of Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, who self-identifies as Posie Parker, but we knew she was coming long before March. She announced her intention to speak at a variety of rotundas and other places not requiring bookings and there was a sense of weary inevitability about the whole thing. 

We figured the small group of anti-transgender activists who create a new organisation every few weeks and would probably make a bit of noise via the usual credulous outlets. There might be a counterprotest and hopefully it wouldn’t be too bad. We had done this before with similar speakers in 2018, though we wondered why no one seemed to have learned from that experience. Then honest-to-god neo-nazis, the National Socialist Network, marched in Melbourne alongside Kelly-Jay Keen-Minshull, and all hell broke loose. 

A blue series of illustrations showing people arguing, neo-nazis holding up an offensive sign, a visa stamp, and people protesting

The week between masked, seig-heiling fascists with their banner (“DESTROY PAEDO FREAKS”) standing on the steps of the Victorian parliament and the Albert Park protest was one of the longest and most emotionally intense of my life. The occasional ice-water shock feeling turned into a cold terror that seeped into my bones. Was Michael Wood really going to let someone who’d promised the “annihilation” of women who opposed her into the country? Would the genocidal rhetoric lighting up the darkest corners of Telegram result in violence? 

The government said it was reviewing her visa and we held our breath, but it was approved, and down we went again. There was a last-ditch legal challenge by a number of underfunded and overstretched Rainbow organisations, another brief hope that maybe, for once, common sense would prevail. But the application for review was declined, although the judgment made it clear Wood could have rejected her visa. She was coming and bringing her circus with her. In group chats, we talked about how little we were sleeping, how hard it was to eat. The news felt like a physical, crushing blow. 

One of the hardest parts of working in mental health is that sometimes you know exactly what’s happening but you can’t stop it, no matter how many conferences about trauma you attend. You’ll know exactly why you’re struggling to speak, why the smallest decisions leave you gasping and utterly overwhelmed, why your fingers feel like they’ve seized up. You know why and still you experience it. 

I still did my job. I listened to my clients. I answered my emails. I wrote to various MPs. I donated to the judicial review legal fund. I got my kid dressed for school, and did the laundry, and read bedtime stories and paid the bills and did all the other things I normally do. All the while, my brain was desperately ringing every alarm and trying to smash every window. 

I live in Te Waipounamu, so I wasn’t there for Tāmaki Makaurau or Pōneke. On Saturday afternoon my family danced in the Octagon surrounded by our Ōtepoti queer community, our banners and our joy. On Sunday, I helped marshal a thousand-strong show of support for trans rights. We used instruments, speakers and Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi to drown out the 30-strong Destiny Church group who shouted at us for three long hours until they gave up and left. 

After a long drive home, I opened the door to find my son waiting for me. He asked if I’d stood up to the bullies. I was able to say to him that yes, I’d been brave. We told the bullies to go away and they did. He told me he was proud of me. 

But the narrative never ends when you’d like it to. In the week following Keen-Minshull’s ignominious flight out of Auckland, the media discussion shifted on a dime and the backlash started. An overwhelming show of support for my community was painted as a riot by people who’d never lost a night’s sleep in their lives. The usual talking heads asked why we wouldn’t debate politely with people who shout for our extermination. Through it all, I did not hear a single trans voice. 

The handwringing of the media and political organisations in power turned transphobic rhetoric into acceptable discourse in this country. I am a relatively public transgender person and I received more threats and open hostility in the last week of March than in the previous four years. The message was clear: we’d drowned out the fascists on the day and now we had to pay for our insolence. Columnists chin-stroked and said maybe this was our fault for not shutting up and taking hatred in good grace. 

By the time April rolled around, the exhaustion and emotional toll left me feeling like a husk. I struggled to make even the most basic of decisions as my brain and nervous system, oversaturated with cortisol and adrenaline, struggled with any kind of executive function. The group chats went to single words as we struggled to describe how we felt, what had been taken out of us. But we’re still here. We exist and we have always existed.

I ended March like I started it. The task feels enormous, the odds overwhelming. But still, beneath it all, is the small spark of joy and determination in chipping away regardless. 

Keep going!