Tuesday 13 May 2014

Interview with Claudia McKay

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Claudia McKay, a transgender activist from New Zealand, President of Agender New Zealand, a leading advocacy organization for the trans community in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Hello Claudia!
Claudia: Hello Monika and thank you for this opportunity.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Claudia: I am 57 years of age, born and raised in Wellington, New Zealand. When I left high school I spent the next 35 years as an artist, I painted and exhibited all that time and married Janet in 1995. We were together for 12-13 years and although now separated we are still very close.
It was Janet that came home one day with the idea that would eventually become Agender NZ. I began my transition at age 40 and have not had surgery. I have nothing against it, just never had enough money at one time and am always spending what I do have on clothes and shoes. My current work for Agender is unpaid so I work part-time as a rental property inspector and also do some cleaning and gardening.
Monika: For many years you have been dealing with transgender advocacy. What are the current challenges for transgender people in New Zealand? 
Claudia: Challenges are always dependent on where you are, those in New Zealand are not as difficult as say, Uganda, but you deal with what you have to do. Probably the biggest problem is our health system. Our country is divided into about 20 District Health Boards (DHB’s for short) these are bulk funded individually and as they are controlled by locally elected boards they make their own decisions on how the funding is spent.
The result of this is that the Transgender community is usually near or at the bottom of the list of importance. This is less obvious in the 5 main cities but the regional areas are poorly served either with ignorance or outright hostility in some cases. An attempt was made to do away with this system in the late ’90s but the reaction of locals who saw control of their local hospitals disappearing saw a backlash that made the government of the day backtrack very quickly.

Rally in support of the Gender Identity Bill,
Parliament grounds, 2004.

What it means for us is inconsistent treatment and often the necessity for people to move to the cities. This is a tough nut to crack.
Other issues are progressing, it is becoming easier to change Identity documents but there is resistance regarding Birth Certificates, however, I can see a time when this will be overcome.
Youth are already creating problems for the system. They are savvier than ever before, the internet gives them access to information many of us could only dream of at their age, they know what they want and they want it now. This is and will put more pressure on systems that are simply not ready to deal with the rising tide of young people wanting to transition.
In addition, our prison system is struggling to deal with years of male chauvinist control and while there have been some small changes recently it still has a long way to go. I do see more enlightened people entering prison service and am hopeful that change will continue on the inside combined with pressure at the government level.
There are many more issues that affect the community, talk to 20 trans people and you will get 20 different issues, each equally important to the individual responding.
Monika: You are the President of Agender New Zealand. How does the organization support transgender people and their families?
Claudia: When we started in 1996 we thought we might have a few people get together from time to time for a meal, boy did we underestimate. What we do, aside from lobbying and such like is dependent on what individuals who come to us actually want and this is as diverse as one could expect. My one rule of thumb is to say yes to any request and then work out how we can make it happen. Common requests are basic questions like ‘where do I start’, ‘what do hormones do’ and so on. While this information is available on the Internet many people need to hear it directly from real people with life experience.
A recent example of what we can do, I recently visited a Trans person in prison and she related to me how she earns a little money working in the prison laundry and she sent a supposed friend on the outside all her money to buy her some underwear and so on that could not otherwise be obtained.
The friend took the money and disappeared. This trans person was a proud individual who was relating reasons for her lack of trust rather than expecting anything, she even said her ex-friend must have needed the money more than her. When I left the prison I went shopping for her and have just sent away to her a selection of items she needed.
As I have said we will try and help in any way we can, practical, emotional, informative, and anything and everything in between.
Monika: In one of your interviews I read your opinions about inadequate public health funding spent on gender realignment surgeries (GRS) over the past five years in New Zealand. How serious is this problem?
Claudia: If it remains a problem is dependent on how our Ministry of Health responds to the current situation.
For many years the MoH has provided 2 or 3 publicly funded MtF surgeries per year and 1 FtM in the same period. Sound OK in principle but the reality is a little different because if the surgery is available in New Zealand then it must be done here. The FtM surgery cannot be done here but for many years a Christchurch Surgeon, Peter Walker has performed MtF surgery so all the government funding was spent with him.
This would have been fine if he was providing good work at a good price but he certainly was not. His technique was outdated, invasive, and prone to complications. In addition, his manner with patients was very male and patronizing and he expected those who had the surgery to only have relations with men and to have them regularly.
Not surprisingly, people voted with their feet and went overseas, most commonly to Thailand where experienced very qualified surgeons performed Penile Inversion in world-class hospitals at far less cost than Peter Walker. For many years we pressed the MoH to provide some choice but our requests were always referred back to the ‘available in New Zealand’ stipulation in the rules. Peter Walker has recently retired and this leaves the MoH with a bit of a Dilemma. What will they do? We are awaiting developments.

Speaking at the Transgender Day of Remembrance, 2005.

Monika: What are the other barriers to accessing GRS?
Claudia: Primarily in New Zealand we have to obtain a Psych report saying we are not crazy etc., which for most of us is a bit demeaning as many of the community have a better understanding of themselves and what they require than the Psychs do.
The other barrier which is no different than anywhere is cost. Somebody did the statistics a while ago on the time it may take to go on the government-funded waiting list and it was something like 20 to 25 years. Hence people find money where they can to go overseas. Some people are in a financial position to afford it, others may borrow, mortgage the house, sell themselves, or go without. Going without is most common for FtM’s who, while Mastectomies can be accessed here, bottom surgery is prohibitively expensive and overseas.
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?
Claudia: The Rainbow community is small here in comparison with countries with much larger populations and the transgender community is only one small part of the rainbow. Many trans people are involved at many levels on a wide range of issues and at times we do work with other interest groups and those groups are certainly supportive of us as a community but in the last few years our country has lurched to the right politically and this has put pressures on organizations both regarding funding and moral conservatism. 
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?
Claudia: When I came back to this role it was apparent to me that while individual trans people were doing good work for the community, there was a lack of a consistent unified voice from an organization that commanded respect from not just the transgender community but the wider community as a whole.
I will be the first to admit that not all of our community have always agreed on our stances on any one topic, however, we have always taken a responsible and ethically based approach to everything we have done and I believe that continuing to take this approach will restore Agender’s credibility which has taken a beating in the last few years.
It is interesting to note that in our first 12 years when we made many, many TV appearances, were interviewed for many publications and radio, we never had any negative publicity and were usually complimented by the public on our positions.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Claudia: Growing up in New Zealand suburbia in the 1960s and 1970s there was nowhere for me to look at all. There was an undercurrent nightlife revolving around a transsexual known as Carmen she was connected to the sex industry and was the only nationally recognized transsexual. She had no appeal to me as a role model.
Later other transgender women came to prominence such as Georgina Beyer who was elected Mayor of the rural town of Carterton and then became our first transgender Member of Parliament. However, she and others came from a similar background to Carmen and their lives bore little resemblance to mine. When I finally transitioned my role models were the ordinary trans people we were meeting in the support group rather than any well-known individual.

Speaking at the Transgender Day of Remembrance, 2006.

Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Claudia: I have been very lucky with my coming out. In the end, it was quite public with Janet and I featured in our first television experience on ‘60 Minutes’ which introduced us to the wider world.
This was 1997 and we both believed that attitudes to our community would never change unless somebody fronted up and presented an alternative face for trans people to what the world had been hitherto exposed to.
The program included filming at an exhibition of my paintings that included a number of self-portraits of myself as Claudia and this was scary. I had a modest reputation as a painter and had no idea if this exhibition and publicity would destroy my career. I was fortunate, it was received well and I sold more paintings than I had ever sold before.
The family was a little different. Initially, there was a little hostility but mostly bewilderment. I have 2 brothers and 2 sisters and have to say that the sisters dealt with it better than my brothers but today all just accept me as I am even if they do not fully understand it all. My parents were elderly when I came out surprisingly my father dealt with it better than my mother. They have both since died but I believe that in the end they were both reconciled with the change.
I had been married in my early 20’s and had a daughter from that union who is now 34. She was in her teens when I came out and I wrote to her in advance of the TV program and unfortunately, I think she had been fed a lot of stuff from her mother and she said in her reply a lot of hurtful things that teenagers are wont to do. She knows where I am and that my door is always open and I would welcome her with open arms.
The last thing I will say on this topic is that I was lucky to marry the most supportive person in 1995. Janet was my closest friend and equal who shared my transition and all the first years of Agender. I could not have done any of it without her and her story is forever entwined with mine despite now living apart for 6 years.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Claudia: In the past, I have been very active in politics and have always voted for the Labour Party but am finding it harder these days to distinguish right from left as most parties seem to want to appeal to the middle ground where significant change is frowned upon. Our nation has been at the forefront in so many areas in the past that it saddens me that few, including our Prime Minister, are willing to stick their neck out and take stances on issues that the world will notice.
As an example, New Zealand should have been the first country to introduce Marriage Equality, not the thirteenth. Any trans person can make a difference in politics but it takes an incredibly thick skin, a need for a personality that can transcend the Trans identity and appeal to as many people as possible, and a commitment to do the things they believe in.
I toyed with the idea of entering politics a few years ago but my close-up exposure to the toxic environment of parliament was enough to put me off. Having said that we have an extremely able Transgender woman, Kelly Ellis, standing for parliament in this year’s election and I believe she has all the qualities I described that will make a difference for all in politics.

With Joy Liddicott from the Human Rights Commission
speaking at the Transgender Day of Remembrance, 2006.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Claudia: The big L word that no one likes to talk about. We all want and need to give and receive love in all its forms, that is simply a human characteristic and I am not immune from that. I have been married twice, the second time with Janet was the most complete time of my life and I admit that I am lucky to have had that because I am aware that many Transgender people never experience it.
Most men and women want one or the other gender as their partner and for those of us who take a position somewhere in between, then the numbers that may be accepting of you diminish rapidly. I have not had a partner for more than 6 years and I am willing to admit that at times it can be very lonely and as a result, I have filled my life with work that occupies me but does not provide that completeness I described earlier.
I am not a closed shop and am always open to the possibility of a relationship with a woman that was accepting, but I have been spoiled with knowing what a good relationship can be and I am not willing to settle for anything less.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Claudia: I have no great opinion one way or the other regarding them. I have never been someone that would be a candidate for entry, however, I am conscious that they can reinforce stereotypes that can be demeaning and from that aspect, I do have reservations.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Claudia: It has been suggested to me a number of times but I don’t think it is in me to do it. If someone else can see it as a possibility then I would co-operate with them but I would not instigate it.

Speaking at Agender’s 10th birthday celebrations
in the grand hall at Parliament Buildings, 2006.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Claudia: We are always working on projects large and small. We have a concept for a National Gender Centre that we would like to see established but this will take more money than we can raise at present but I am convinced it will happen as there is a growing need and it should be there for anyone to turn to at any time.
Right now I am looking at having our Lotteries funding reinstated to allow us to do more than just put band-aids on issues. Just yesterday we heard that because accounts were not provided for the time my predecessor was in charge, the Lotteries Commission will not renew our funding. Someone else’s incompetence in the past is affecting what we can do in the next 12 months and that I find unacceptable and worthy of fighting against.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Claudia: Go with what your heart tells you. Whatever choice you make there will be things that you can consider wins and things that you have to accept as losses. Inform yourself as best you can to make decisions that are right for you. Believe in yourself and be proud that you are equal to everyone else in the world.
Monika: Claudia, thank you for the interview! 

The main photo credits: Dominion Post.
All the photos: courtesy of Claudia McKay.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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