Commissioner Richard Tankersley: Our journey is ongoing

Commissioner Richard Tankersley: Our journey is ongoing

August 20, 2015

Five votes is all it took back in 1986 to change New Zealand history and begin the long and ongoing journey towards human rights for LGBTI Kiwis.

In 1986 the New Zealand parliament passed the Homosexual Law Reform Act by 49 votes to 44, but few Kiwis realise that the second part of the Act – that contained anti-discrimination legal protections for lesbians and gay men – was not passed that day. In fact it wasn’t until 1993 that sexual orientation was included as a prohibited grounds for discrimination in the Human Rights Act. Twelve years later the first civil unions took place between same sex couples, and it was another eight years in 2013 when marriage equality became a reality for New Zealand. The realisation (so far) of human rights in New Zealand concerning sexual orientation and gender identity has taken place over 29 years. I hope the next steps don't take as long.

One of the biggest issues is that of bullying in our schools, and while there have been things happening in that arena, it seems to take ages. But this year, the Anti Bullying Guidelines 2015 have identified that bullying around gender and sexuality is a problem that needs to be dealt with. I totally agree. Kids of all walks have the same right to education, safety and life as all the others - regardless of who they are. We have to make sure these guidelines are implemented and monitored properly.

The trans status of some (but not all) of our trans people can be noticeable to the casual observer. Because of heightened visibility, fear and prejudice, trans people often face discrimination every day in areas of life that are critical to wellbeing - jobs, accommodation, health and other services. In recent years, as examples, the Human Rights Commission has received complaints about harassment in hair salons and clothing stores, refusal of gym membership, being de-selected in job applications, and breaches of personal privacy. This state of affairs needs to be addressed - as a country and as individuals and communities, we should not accept these behaviours.

There have been some advances in New Zealand in the legal recognition of the identities of trans people in recent years - particularly in passports and in drivers' licences - however it's only in Argentina, Denmark, Malta, Colombia and most recently Ireland where trans people can have their identity documents altered on the basis of self-identification, rather than having to go through a drawn-out and expensive medico-legal process to do so. We could catch up to Colombia here!

Finally, there is currently limited or no access to funded gender reassignment surgery in New Zealand for trans people. As a nation we can fund corrective surgery for birth defects, we can pay for restorative surgery for breasts after radical mastectomies in women past child-bearing age, and we can find the money to offer corrective (weight loss) stomach surgery to people who are morbidly obese. All of these surgeries improve function, they all vastly improve wellbeing and quality of life and they all drastically improve self-esteem. I can see no reason why a funder cannot apply the same criteria to apportion reasonable funding for gender reassignment.

Marriage equality has made a difference. As a registered celebrant I have officiated at a dozen same sex weddings in the last two years, and only one civil union - for an opposite sex couple.

What’s clear to me as a Human Rights Commissioner is that although 1986 seems a long time ago for some, the reality is that our journey towards the full realisation of human rights for LGBTI New Zealanders is ongoing. We still have a long way to go.

Commissioner Richard Tankersley

Based in Christchurch, Richard Tankersley was appointed a part-time Commissioner in September 2008. He brings South Island issues and experience in the iwi, health, education and training, community and voluntary, and public sectors to the Commission. Richard’s iwi affiliations are Kai Tahu, Kati Mamoe and Waitaha.

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