How I ID – and the Births, Deaths and Marriages Bill

OPINION: Hello. My name is Adam. I’m an actor and theatre director, living in Auckland. Sometimes I write stuff. I was born in the USA but grew up in Stratford, Taranaki. I went to Stratford Primary, then St. Mary’s Dio. I’ve got a cat named Daphne, and she’s pretty chur. My family are awesome and my friends are absolutely mental and perfect. I’m lucky as shit. Here’s a picture of me eating food.

Me, eating some good food, and my friend Wu Mi being awesome.

I’m also transgender. I came out in 2016 and have done a bunch of stuff socially and medically to make my outsides look like my insides. I’ve had, comparatively, an incredibly easy time of it. I’ve almost always been able to access the medical care I needed (even if it took a few years of admin crap), my family and friends almost always had my back, I’ve experienced workplace discrimination and unemployment for only brief periods of time (unless you count huge dry spells of acting work, but that’s a weird and tricky topic because, like… fitting me in in terms of casting briefs is complicated…), and I get to live my life now pretty much exactly how I want.

I’m lucky as shit.

All of that being said, I have still experienced periods of extreme anxiety and depression. I’ve spent more time educating some health care professionals than receiving care from them and experienced outright disregard and discrimination from some – including those in hospital emergency care services and the mental health crisis team. I’ve spent months panicking every time I needed to use a toilet and was out in public, cutting short activities so I could make it home before I wet myself rather than use either the female toilets (nauseatingly dishonest) or the male toilets (putting myself at risk of assault).

Thankfully, most of that is behind me. I’m stoked with how the medical processes I’ve undergone has turned out. I’ve landed a job as an intern director on a major web series that’s gonna be coming out late this year, and am starting an arts production company with two of my best friends in the next few months. I have also finally had my name legally changed – Adam David Rohe for now and forever, yáll.

I’ve got one last major life-admin step to take care of before I can forget about all this rigmarole and get on with my life.

My birth certificate still has my gender listed as female.

To update it, as the BDMRRA (Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Act 1995) stands, I need to undergo a Family Court process, navigating a bunch of legal red tape and providing evidence of my gender – including evidence of medical intervention I’ve had. I have no idea how to get that done legality-wise, so I’ll need to hire a lawyer. That’ll cost around $3,000.

I work in the arts. I definitely don’t have a spare $3,000. It’ll also take about a year.

So, for me, that process is still a ways off. That being said, I can already get my drivers license and passport updated to display my correct gender with a simple statutory declaration, observed by a Justice of the Peace. So, assuming I don’t do anything really terrible and have those taken off of me by the State, I can get through life with my privacy reasonably intact. There are a few exceptions – if I get married, if I apply for anything requiring 3 forms of ID, if I have a child, or if I die. So I’ll just… not do any of those things until I get it sorted.

Let’s talk about not me for a second though. Let’s talk about, say, a trans kid under the age of 15. Or a trans prisoner. Or a trans woman of colour. Or someone applying for a student loan. Or someone without a driver’s license or passport, trying to apply for work. Or a non-binary trans person (someone for whom ‘male’ or ‘female’ are too narrow of a category). The barriers under the current BDMRRA, for those people in positions of less privileged than I, suddenly appear much more daunting.

Me showing off my pecks while healing from top surgery

Aside from the red tape and financial barriers, the requirement of the provision of medical evidence is  problematic. Many people have not undergone medical treatment for a range of reasons – and there is certainly no consistency as to what types of medical intervention different trans people require. Also, trans people may require a certain type of medical intervention but have not yet been able to access it due to financial barriers or discrimination within the medical system (which happens more than you would care to believe). Aside from this, many trans people do not want medical intervention, but are pressured into it because of this type of legal hurdle.

A Bill was proposed, originally by Hon Peter Dunne, then the Minister of Internal Affairs, to update the BDMRRA. In 2017, with the change of government, Minister Tracy Martin inherited the bill. The process went through a select committee, and was – as per usual process – opened for public consultation.

As a result of public feedback, an addendum was added to make the process for changing the gender on your birth certificate the same as that for updating your passport and driver’s license – you would make a statutory declaration in front of a Justice of the Peace and that would be that. After the report was released in August 2017, there was a great deal of public outcry from a small group of very vocal individuals who have orchestrated a campaign of misinformation. Finally, on the 25th of February, Minister Martin caved to that pressure, deferring the Bill until “further public consultation” could take place.

Suddenly, the country is in uproar. The debate has grown incredibly toxic, with extreme emotion, hate speech, fear-mongering tactics and misinformation being spouted from every angle of the argument. The Minister has received rape threats. A single-issue radical feminist group called Speak Up For Women is doing letterbox flyer drops all over Auckland speaking out against the Bill. Social media platforms surrounding gender diversity, feminism, human rights issues and so forth are nearly intolerable. A petition to government vying for the discontinuation of gender diversity education in schools has, at present, over 30,000 signatures and is currently the largest petition to government. It is an absolute shit show.

So I looked into the main fears of people opposing the bill, to try and understand where they were rooted.

It appears that the fears are primarily based around a concern for women’s rights (noting that, in general, the antagonists definition of ‘women’s rights’ excludes trans women). There is concern around women’s spaces (schools, prisons, refuge centres, bathrooms etc) being breached by predatory men – either non-trans men abusing the system, or trans women who these parties refuse to recognise as women at all.

Please note: this classification of trans women, and the automatic assumption that they are more likely to be predatory, is “against every international human rights organisation, every international human rights treaty, the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, the National Council of Women, and against transgender experiences of themselves,” according to genderminorities.com

To address the fear of non-trans men abusing this change in legislation, “there is no credible evidence suggesting elevated levels of sexual violence as a result of similar legislation passing in other countries.”

Here’s a list of some of the countries that have passed similar legislation: Argentina – 2012. Ireland – 2015. Malta – 2015. Norway – 2016. Belgium – 2017. Portugal – 2018.

I have heard expression of concern regarding the placement of prisoners should the Bill be passed. In response, the Department of Corrections has already declared that it is ready to make adjustments to the ways that prisoners are housed to ensure the safest conditions possible for all prisoners.

Also, at present, the rates of violence against transgender women in male prisons is huge. In a 2007 study conducted in California, incarcerated trans women were thirteen times more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted in prisons than their non-trans counterparts. In a series of interviews conducted by People Against Prisons Aotearoa, only one trans woman who they spoke to did not report being raped by either a guard or a fellow prisoner while incarcerated.

There is concern expressed regarding the place of trans youth in the school system. This is precisely one of the things the trans community are hoping to address, as it would eliminate systematic discrimination against trans youth. When a system is discriminatory, it is encourages all of those within it to discriminate similarly. The experience of trans young people in an unsupportive schooling environment can include being forced to wear the wrong uniform, use the wrong toilet and be consistently referred to as the wrong gender. This leads to huge incidence of bullying among the students. In NZ, one in five trans students reports instances of bullying within the past week. Approximately 40 per cent of trans youth show major depressive symptoms. Nearly half report self harm within the last 12 months. They are five times more likely to attempt suicide. This is toxic enough that often trans young people leave school, regardless of their age, as the only way to escape discrimination.

The invasion of women’s bathrooms, women’s restrooms and other women’s spaces is a fear widely expressed and hotly debated both in New Zealand and internationally. However, everyone seems to be forgetting that, in New Zealand, you do not need a birth certificate to enter these spaces. The passing of the current Bill would not alter access to the spaces in any way. On top of that, there has been no reported increase of violence in these spaces after the passing of similar bills internationally.

Our current BDMRRA was last updated in 1995. At the time it was progressive, but is now woefully outdated, and does not align with international human rights law or recommendations made by the United Nations. Nor does it align with existing domestic processes for updating our driver’s license and passport – law that has been internationally acclaimed for its progressive nature. Bodies in favour of the Bill passing include United Nations, Public Health Association of New Zealand, Women’s Health Action, Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP, National Council of Women, and the Human Rights Commission.

I’m mostly worried about how irrational the debate has become. At its core, it is a simple adjustment to an outdated system, looking to ensure basic privacy and human rights for trans, non-binary, and intersex people. They are exclusively the ones affected by these changes – except for the release of misused tax money tied up in administration fees navigating the current excessive red tape.

It would be much better if we could read a lot more than we speak, in situations this inflammatory. This has been a big read – cheers and congratulations for making it with me to the end.

It was nice to meet you 🙂