Friday, 24 January 2014

Interview with Kelly Ellis

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Kelly Ellis, an inspirational transgender advocate, lawyer, and politician from New Zealand. Hello Kelly!
Kelly: Good Morning Monika.
Monika: Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Kelly: I think anyone can make a difference in politics. They shouldn’t be there if that’s not their motivation. I’m motivated by hoping to contribute to a society where our children have better work and educational opportunities. That can only happen with a redistribution of wealth. These views are independent of who or what I am. They are the goals any good citizen should hope for.
Notwithstanding that, visibility for transgender people is important if we are to increase our influence. There are few things that are more visible than entering politics.
Monika: Georgina Beyer was the first trans woman who became the world's first openly transgender mayor and Member of Parliament. It might be possible that you could follow her if you were nominated as a candidate of the Labour Party of New Zealand. When is this decision going to be taken?
Kelly: The candidacy will be determined in March. Inevitably comparisons will be made with Georgina Beyer but I feel that this isn’t particularly helpful. It moves the conversation from the issues on to who is doing the talking rather than the tremendous need we have for greater social equity.
Monika: If you are accepted as a candidate, you will have to expand your political agenda to attract voters that are not interested in the promotion of transgender rights. Could you shed some light on your political manifesto?
Kelly: Again, there is, inevitably, a focus on transgender rights. The Labour Party branch that is promoting me as their preferred candidate cares little for transgender rights. They are behind me because I’m a professional advocate concerned about an increasing gap between rich and poor in this country. Those people supporting my bid are more interested in jobs and education for the young people in this town.
Monika: So far in the world there have been only three transgender members of the parliament: Georgina Beyer of New Zealand, Vladimir Luxuria of Italy, and Anna Grodzka of Poland. Why only three …?
Kelly: I think it’s hard to give a simple answer here, but the reality is that transgender people suffer such prejudice that rising out of poverty and getting into politics is more difficult. People may also be discouraged by exposing themselves to the rudeness that comes from some people. There is also the privacy issue.
In many ways, I’m quite reclusive and I did my best to avoid the curious press. But working on issues such as transgender prisoners and marriage equality required working with journalists and generating publicity.

Kelly with her dog Bruce.

Monika: Your advocacy was instrumental in the improvement of the rights of transpeople in prisons. What challenges did you have to face while advocating on behalf of transpersons in prison?
Kelly: Forgive the long answer! There is the “hang ‘em high” brigade that will always want prisoners to suffer.
I guess the challenge is making people realize that the loss of liberty is the punishment and that prisoners are still people who deserve the same level of care, regardless of how others might identify them. It’s hard for some people to realize that people don’t “deserve what they get” in prison. It’s not a place to be constantly harassed, beaten, raped, and deprived of medication.
The difficulty is that prisoners attract little sympathy. If prisoners were bad dogs on death row at the local pound, none of these people would say the dogs should be housed and treated cruelly before their execution. This would be regardless of what the dog did to deserve getting there. It would be regardless of whether the dog was a poodle or a Pomeranian. No one would advocate singling out particular dogs for particularly cruel treatment. Why on earth do we do it to humans? That, I guess, is the greatest challenge.
The second one was far more personal. I live in a small city and when this transgender prisoner issue hit the international news, I was living in a very small and isolated rural community. Fighting this battle inevitably has meant “putting my head above the trench.” I’m not a great believer in the concept of true stealth. Always people know. But not all people know all the time.
One privilege I have is the ability to pass. I had the ability to walk through my community with my gender history unknown. I liked that anonymity. As a litigation lawyer involved in high-profile cases, protecting my family and myself from the glare of the media fascination required a bit of effort. Surrendering to that media interest has been a challenge for someone as private as me.
The third difficulty I faced was from, you guessed it, one transsexual separatist, who tried to stymie my efforts to rescue a raped prisoner by making formal complaints to the Law Society which is the regulating body for lawyers. This kind of destructive behavior even attracted the attention of the local gay press.
When I was named in the Gay NZ New Year’s Honours List, even the national press picked up on the story, recording that I’d received “bitter flak” from within the community for my work. This, in fact, had come from one person. I found having to deal with those complaints while trying to rescue rape victims particularly unhelpful at the time. I guess some people are more interested in being destructive than being agents for change.
Monika: Could you say a few words about your other initiatives?
Kelly: Setting up TransAdvocates – an advocacy service for trans people – in 2009 has been a significant advance I believe. These days it’s pretty much Lexie Matheson, Allyson Hamblett, and me who do the work. We’re all highly educated experienced advocates. Supporting each other in our efforts has meant that they have been far more effective. We’ve been a cohesive group that has had greater influence than any other when it comes to advancing trans causes in New Zealand in recent years. We have an active Facebook page that has many influential people who are fans.
There are politicians, journalists, academics, advocates, and a huge variety of other people who are influential in the fight for improved transgender rights. Setting up TransAdvocates was something the community really needed. We’ve done a lot of work – ranging from feeding a lot of people to running free law clinics. We’ve done free gender changes through the courts. We’ve got women out of men’s prisons. We save some from rape. Five years down the track we’re respected as people who get things done.

On the beach with Bruce.

Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in New Zealand?
Kelly: I think it’s important to put things in context first. I have a tremendous amount of privilege. I’m employed, I have a home, I pass easily in my gender. I am seen as “white”, I’m educated and able-bodied.
This means that I don’t experience a great deal of evident prejudice. This isn’t to say that it’s not there, but I’m sure my listed privileges mean that I get treated better than if I didn’t have them.
With that disclaimer in mind, I think New Zealand is a fairly liberal and accepting society. There is no doubt that prejudice is there and the more a person looks, the more they’ll find. I try not to look too hard. I don’t want to sound as if I put the “rose-tinted” glasses on, but I think it’s easy to spend too much time concentrating on the negatives. 
We live in a liberal country where at least one transgender woman has worked her way off the streets into a mayoralty and then later Parliament. Georgina Beyer is an example of how far transgender people can go in this society. I see the glass as not only being half full, but it comes with a free glass!
While I have this positive outlook, I’m not suggesting that life isn’t very tough for those without privilege. But, we do have things better than many in many other countries. No surgery is required to change a birth certificate. We can get a passport with the gender marker we want on it. We have marriage equality. Soon transgender women will be housed in women’s prisons without having to have surgery. These legislative advances just keep coming and it’s very heartening for all in the community.
Monika: In my interview with Jasmine Eastall, she referred to a certain divide in the transgender community in New Zealand. Do you agree with her?
Kelly: I believe there are a few, who, for years, have tried to generate a divide and even created the impression there was one. I think recently it’s become clear that self-identification is almost universally respected in the community. That respect reflects more unity than division.
Notwithstanding that, there is the odd transsexual separatist still around. They have fought against the liberalization of laws. There was even an argument by one able-bodied person that being transgender was a “disability” and should be treated as such for welfare purposes. Fortunately, that argument never gained traction, but it was articulated in a most unfortunate and very public way.
I think transgender people are more inclined to celebrate their abilities and refuse to accept any suggestion there are places they are excluded from. I think these days the trans community has greater recognition of diversity than it did a few years ago and while this might mean there are some distinct groups, there’s also greater recognition of the things we share and the causes we have in common. I see far more unity than division.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Kelly: These are almost the exact words of American Vice President Joe Biden. This is a fast-developing area of the law. In fact, it might be the fastest-developing area of law in the world. We’ve made great strides here in NZ over the last 20 or so years. No other group has had its rights recognized and accommodated in law the way transgender people have over the last few decades. I find this heartening from the perspective.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Kelly: As a youngster, I found myself often frequenting the nightclubs that transgender women congregated at. I saw no role models and the only available occupations being prostitution or stripping. As a kid who’d been through foster care, a Catholic orphanage, and felt a great disconnect from my family, I was desperate to have my own.
At the age of four, tied into a bed covered in rubber so my pee wouldn’t soak the mattress, I used to close my eyes and fantasize about living in a house in a leafy suburb with a loving partner, a family, and fat cats. That fantasy was what I held on to during those dark moments and I never relinquished it. I could see no path to these ambitions in the red light district of Wellington when I was a teenager.
One of the difficulties is the images that dominate the media do not make it easier for transgender people. While the images of prostitutes and drag queens are the ones that dominate the press, it’s hard to see role models.
But if one looks a little harder, there are plenty within our community. The lack of evident role models when I decided to transition was a problem, but I was old enough to realize I could write my own rules, present the way I chose, and wouldn’t necessarily end up like the sequined gargoyles that dominated the images in the press.

Photo by Satya Transman.

Initially, I couldn’t see anyone who had embarked on the path I had. For me, the transition was about how I behaved and related to the world. It was more about that than how I looked. I didn’t cross-dress, I just went on hormones and saw where it would lead me.
I did attend one support group meeting early in the piece but found it more like a hot rod club meeting than anything else. 
There was so much discussion of who was real and who wasn’t; there was a tremendous focus on surgery and techniques. It seemed to me that if one didn’t have a double-barrel carburetor and twin exhaust pipes, one would never get acceptance among this group.
I think I experienced what almost the last gasp of the “old school” transsexuals who saw surgery as everything and subscribed to the notion that one needed to be prepared to lose everything in transition – job, home, partner, children, etc. I never subscribed to that notion and still don’t. This frightening scenario which some still paint is misinformation that is very damaging. It’s good to see that good, positive stories are often in the press these days rather than the “woe is me” stuff that used to find such currency.
Monika: So how did you do it?
Kelly: I used my kids and partner as my greatest guides. I began my transition focusing on making our children proud of me. I concentrated on being a better partner to my wife who, truth be told, was getting a bit sick of the man she’d married! But, I was very visibly queer with the ambiguous presentation that came from hormones and facial hair removal. In one provincial court where I did a long trial, some colleagues were very rude to me and this prompted me to form the advocacy service. By doing this, I began to make some decent connections in the trans community.
I found people who also didn’t subscribe to the sequined, silicone image that seems to dominate the mainstream media and who were often the loudest and most vulgar voices to be heard. During this period I’d done a lot of reading and found great comfort in the writing of Julia Serano (Whipping Girl) and Kate Bornstein (Gender Outlaw). These authors made me realize that there were people out there who weren’t obsessed with surgery and the gender binary.
Given where I was at the time, these role models were incredibly reassuring, made me realize that transition isn’t all about the look, and confirmed that my journey wasn’t “wrong” as I’d been told in one purported support group.
So, I guess, when I began there seemed to be more people around showing how to screw it up than make transition something really positive and valuable when it came to improving important relationships.
I’ve mentioned Allyson Hamblett earlier. She was a great ally from early in my transition and a tremendous role model. She was a ray of hope in what seemed to be a scene utterly dominated by embittered separatists who wanted to talk about their genitals at every opportunity. Allyson was the antithesis of that. Later, I met Lexie Matheson who’d also successfully transitioned within her existing relationship. Both she and Allyson continue to be great friends from who I draw strength.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Kelly: Transsexual separatists were the greatest problem. One published my old name, occupation, and even the name of my partner in a public blog. This was at a time when I was slowly emerging as transgender in the workplace. While I present in quite a binary way these days, it wasn’t always that way.
For most of my life, I’ve broken gender rules and I staunchly defend people’s right to present in a gender non-conforming manner. This, a few years ago, was the frontline when it came to the fight for transgender rights. The greatest enemy was not the wider community, but the few surgery-obsessed separatists whose views, thankfully, no longer dominate the conversation.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Kelly: Nothing is more important to me than the love of my partner and children. Not only do I draw great strength from them, but they help center me. They are a touchstone and, if I’m making them proud, I know I’m on the right track!
Monika: Do you have any hobbies? What do you do when you have free time?
Kelly: Until recently we lived on a small farm 35 kilometers from the city where I work. We ran a number of heritage breed pigs. While I pretended it was a way of generating income, the truth was that I liked pigs and that it was a hobby.
Having moved back into town, I’m finding I have more time and am starting to get back involved in two of my favorite sports – sailing and motorcycle racing. I read a lot, I write, I love cooking, I love working with my friends on trans issues and, when I’m worn out from it all love to disappear off to bed clutching a cat – animals which seems ever-present in my life. 
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Kelly: I’ve always been a prolific writer, but do it more for my own pleasure than with a view to sharing with a wider audience. I think transition stories are often a bit overdone. There are many who seem to think the fact of transition is a story in itself. It may be to some, but I’m more interested in what transwomen do and don’t see their mere existence as being worthy of a book.
With my recent entry into politics, I’ve had more than one approach to writing a book. It might be politically expedient to do this, but I need to balance this with my desire for privacy. It’s a difficult balance to strike. Given how busy I am, there’s not a lot of time at the moment. This means that I may well take up the offer by an established author to write the book herself. I guess I have a general disinclination because of a desire for privacy.
But the reality is that doing the work for trans prisoner and for marriage equality has meant that I no longer have the low profile I previously enjoyed. Doing this work has propelled me into the limelight and I guess I need to either embrace it or dig a hole and hide. I’m not very good at hiding, so I guess a book, written by someone else, is very much on the cards.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Kelly: I guess I’d say that they should realize that being transgender isn’t about following someone else’s rule book. It’s about throwing it away and writing one’s own rules.
Be true to yourself. Seek out the people who love you and will love you back. Avoid the people who will drag you down and, importantly, don’t talk about your genitals in public!
This last point is a pet peeve for me. I intensely dislike being asked about my genitals. The culture where people feel they can ask is fuelled by those who want to tell, describe, and even display their genitals publicly. Don’t do this!
Monika: Kelly, thank you for the interview!
Kelly: Thank you, Monika.

All the photos: courtesy of Kelly Ellis.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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