Thursday 13 March 2014

Interview with Cherise Witehira

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Cherise Witehira, an inspirational transgender activist from New Zealand, Butcher’s Apprentice, Hairdresser, Academic, Sex Worker, Public Servant and former President of Agender New Zealand, a leading advocacy organization for the trans community in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Hello Cherise!
Cherise: Kia ora my sis!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Cherise: Trigger alert, blunt, offensively honest etc…
Monika: For many years you have been dealing with transgender advocacy. What are the current challenges for transgender people In New Zealand?
Cherise: Please forgive me for the long-winded response to this question. To be honest Monika, there are many challenges faced by the Trans community here in Aotearoa, NZ. The five main issues I see currently affecting the community in NZ are Housing, Healthcare, Education, Employment and Poverty.
These issues have been evident for many years and successive governments have chosen to ignore them as they “are not a priority”. This is quite sad really as there are many within the community who require the support but for various reasons, cannot seem to access the services that are required in order for the person to become, for want of a better term, valuable, contributing members of society.
In saying that, the onus doesn’t just lie with government services; it also comes down to the person and whether they want to change their lives for the better. Some are very comfortable where they are at and do not wish to change that and that’s absolutely fine however, there are still many within the community who want to contribute but are almost sidelined by the government agencies they have to deal with.

Cherise & the former US Ambassador to NZ, David Huebner.

A perfect example would be a Trans woman I know very well (name withheld) who has a university education and is very much employable however, the social welfare system here in NZ wish to send her on a course to upskill her in the hospitality industry.
This I find quite offensive as she is an academic and could be working for the department she is dealing with but for some reason, the department wants her to make coffee for a living.
Monika: It must be disappointing.
Cherise: This is very discouraging for the person as she has spent thousands on her University degree only to be told she must attend these courses in order to satisfy the department’s criteria to continue to financially support her.
This creates a belief within the person that the degree she studied isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on which in turn, devalues the person’s self worth and she will then turn to other avenues to deal with the subsequent dysphoria due to the insufficient support she requires from the social welfare system. I could go on about more examples on how the government is failing the trans community but realistically, the community is failing itself and doing itself no favors with the lack of unity in ideas and solutions to the problems.
The community need to sort their own dramas out before they try to get society to accept them because how in the world can we as a community expect the world to accept us when we don’t accept each other.
Monika: You were the President of Agender New Zealand. How does the organisation support transgender people and their families?
Cherise: I haven’t been the President for over 2 years now. The current President of Agender New Zealand is Claudia Mackay, who is also the founder of the organization. The organization is a valuable asset to the Trans community here in Aotearoa, although there are many in the community who wish to distance themselves from the organization for various reasons, the main one being the perception that the organization only welcomes older, white, middle class men who wear skirts in their spare time.
This perception of the organization was true when the organization first started in the 80’s and was called CD-ROM (Cross Dressers, Real Ordinary Men). This perception slowly started changing when Joanne Nielson became President and was succeeded by Dorothy Gartner and then myself.
I think Joanne and Dot succeeded in marginally shifting the perception of the organization to one that is all inclusive of the entire trans community and I attempted to continue the momentum they had created. Agender has been very quiet since I left and I am making assumptions here when I say they may be working on something that could benefit all trans people and their families.
Hopefully they do continue with the work as it’s an organization that is needed for a certain demographic within the trans community. It has the worldwide Trans community watching and waiting to see what their next project will be and I’m excited to see what it will be!

Cherise & friends at an UpRising Trust Party in Christchurch.

Monika: In 2012, Agender New Zealand protested against the Libra tampons commercial, demonstrating a cis woman’s superiority over a transgender woman due to her ability to menstruate. What is your general view on transgender stories or characters which have been featured in the media?
Cherise: Tampon-gate again! (laughs) I want to address the ad first of all. This will likely annoy a few people to be honest but it is what it is. When you are in an elected position, you must listen to your constituents and on the odd occasion, make public statements that you personally don’t agree with.
This was the case with tampon-gate. I saw the humor in the ad and thought it was hilarious. However, they did miss the mark with it and I thought a little more research was needed in order to make the campaign more what they intended it to be, although I would say it was quite effective in the sense that it created discussion about the product.
Now to respond to the question at hand, I have one word for trans stories and characters featured in the media. Sensationalized. The stories are usually in a negative context, blown out of proportion and often use incorrect terms, the worst being transvestite, not to mention mis-gendering a trans person, all to attract readers/viewers to the piece. This is something that requires work but as I said, it is what it is.
Most media want the sad heartbreaking story involving an injustice done to a hard done by victim. Don’t get me wrong, they are out there right now and they are struggling through so much and some do not make it to the next morning.
In saying that, society perceive trans people according to what they see and hear so if the community wants to be seen as old men in dresses, then by all means, show that in the media. If they want to be seen as everyday people going about their lives, then that’s what needs to be shown.
Essentially, stop feeling sorry for yourself, quit playing the victim and get out there and make something of yourself. The only person holding you back is YOU! You can do this and you have the tautoko (support) around you to be able to do it.
Monika: Politics is based on the interaction with different interest groups that wish to pursue their specific goals. How successful is the New Zealand transgender community in this respect?
Cherise: This is a good question as you have addressed an issue within the question that is all too common within the community. There are a lot of groups here that pursue their own specific goals and there is no real unity between the groups as I touched on earlier in the interview.
There needs to be collaboration between the groups but also ensuring that independence is maintained within the groups so the group’s specific goals are still acknowledged and worked on independently but with the support of other groups. Perhaps a Memorandum of Understanding between the different groups would be a good start. Will never happen though…

Cherise with NZ Prime Minister, John Key.

Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities? Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Cherise: This is a sensitive question and I will try to answer it tactfully but I will likely have my head bitten off by certain factions within the queer community. Yes, it is the last letter but what does this have to do with anything?
We are all in the same boat in terms of the journey to find oneself and to also try and be accepted by society in general by having equal rights. I think people read too much in to it and take it far too personally. Regardless of what GLBT/LGBT/BTGL/TBLG/TGIF (lol) term is used, each faction is struggling for their own identity and fighting for equality within society.
In saying that, the association between lesbian and gay communities and the trans communities aren’t particularly helpful in my opinion when it comes to societal perception, because we all know that there is a marked difference between gender and sexuality although the two do run parallel with each other.
Unfortunately there is not enough education on the difference between the two as there are still people who see trans women as gay men who dress and live as women. This is definitely an issue that all queer communities need to work on – the difference between the two.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Cherise: Only one. She was my hero and I wanted to be like her. Unfortunately she is now an example of what I do not want to become and it scares the living daylights out of me. She’s still a beautiful person with a kind heart and I love her dearly and would do anything to help her if I could, but one has to want to be helped in order to be helped.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Cherise: Mum and dad took it quite badly as did a lot of my family. Most are actually okay now and it didn’t take long for them to get there. Dealing with the harsh comments and looks I would get while walking through the city during the day I think was the hardest thing to deal with. It does get lonely when you are with (I hate the term as they, like me, are just people like everyone else) “cis” friends and they can’t understand why you’ve gone quiet and can no longer make eye contact with them. Apart from that, my “coming out” was smooth as a twink.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Cherise: I was in the public service for some time and could not publicly voice my political opinion. I left in December 2013 so am just starting to get my voice back ;) To the latter question, I don’t think it matters whether a person in politics is trans or not.
As long as he/she/they are good at what they do, genuinely listen to what the people want, and are able to practice best judgment according to that, then the person will be able to make a difference, regardless of who or what they are. But that’s what the media want I guess. Tokenism.

Cherise & one of her boys outside Rush Bar.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Cherise: Ask me again in 7 years.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Cherise: If that’s your buzz, I’m totally judging you because that’s why you’ve entered the contest, to be judged by someone who doesn’t know you and have to sometimes put on phony smile to be told whether or not you’re beautiful enough.
Yes, the sisters on there are trick and, well, mostly unsprung but who really cares. Beauty comes from within. Kaore te kumara I kōrero ki tāna reka – be humble. Now that’s true beauty ma dear. 
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Cherise: Are you kidding, I’m 28. I’m far too young to be writing the eventual tranny memoir although it would probably have to be a trilogy because guuuuuurl, the things I could tell you! *z-snap*.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Cherise: On the first Sunday of every month, I am running T Nights at Rush Bar, 5 Wigan Street, Wellington City for Trans and Trans admirers. I’m also doing Special Coffee and toasted sandwiches from days gone by.
Older NZ sisters will remember what that is. I am also now the Madame for NZ’s only Exclusively Transsexual Bordello, Madame Jaime’s, located in a discreet Central Wellington location. It’s Licensed too! (subtle plug there) The owners, Aaron and Dion, have been very accommodating for the community and genuinely want to support in any way they can.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Cherise: You’re feeling lonely, you’re not alone. Reach out. Talk to someone, please, otherwise you’ll end up being a selfish cunt.
Monika: Cherise, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Cherise Witehira.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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