The Realities of Gender Reassignment Surgery in New Zealand

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With a huge increase in demand for gender reassignment surgery in the UK being reported by The Guardian, express considers the current situation in New Zealand and asks notable Kiwi’s what needs to change.

The Herald reported in April that there were 86 New Zealander’s on the waiting list for gender reassignment surgery, however Newshub reports that the number of transgender people in New Zealand interested in seeking gender reassignment surgery looks like more than one thousand.

Recent studies in New Zealand as well as Belgium and the Netherlands found at least 1% of the population reported being trans or experience some kind of gender incongruence. Not all of these transgender people will desire gender reassignment surgery, but if only 10% of these New Zealander’s do wish to physically align their bodies with their identified gender, this is more than four thousand people.

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Furthermore, the only trained plastic surgeon capable of performing this operation retired in 2014, reporting that it “could be 50 years until the current backlog is cleared.”

According to a document released by the Ministry of Health, the government’s Special High Cost Treatment Pool funds three male to female gender reassignment surgeries every two years, while female to male receive only one funded surgery.

Lexie Matheson, transgender woman and Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, says that the same increase in interest in gender reassignment surgery can be seen in New Zealand.

Lexie Matheson for Stuff.co.nz
Lexie Matheson for Stuff.co.nz

“It’s gained some traction due to the increased visibility the media is giving us and that’s a good thing – in most ways” she says. In response to the increase in demand of gender reassignment surgeries in the UK, Matheson says that “there is an increasing sense of ‘how can I best be who I am’ and interest in hormones and surgeries is a natural flow on from that.”

Green MP and vocal GLBT advocate Kevin Hague aggress that the increase awareness and resources around trans issues and accessibility to gender reassignment surgery have contributed to an increase in demand. “I think that there has always been a demand for GRS” he says in an interview with express, “but the wider awareness of the challenges for trans and intersex people within the wider community has meant that more people are aware of the issue of GRS accessibility.”

“There is currently a massive gap between need and supply for GRS in New Zealand. We believe that this demonstrates a fundamental failure on the part of New Zealand’s health services, and suggests that the Government does not take the health and wellbeing of trans and intersex people seriously. The drastic difference in the availability and quality of health services for trans and intersex people across regional DHBs is also very concerning.”

Mimicking this sentiment, Matheson says that trans people who are interested in gender reassignment surgery are “stuck between a rock and John Key’s immovable desk.”

Kevin Hague from via Twitter
Kevin Hague from via Twitter

Matheson says that many kiwi women are going overseas, most often to Thailand, to self-fund their surgery. However, most are simply unable to shoulder the huge costs associated with this kind of surgery. She says that gender reassignment is still widely considered cosmetic surgery in New Zealand. This ties in with the need to have gender identity recognized in the Human Rights Act.

“In my perfect world the government would take the initiative, include ‘gender identity’ in the Human Rights Act and fund up to 20 surgeries a year if performed by approved surgeons in other parts of the world because attracting a surgeon with these skills to NZ has proved impossible. This would clear the horrific backlog within 5 years, enable women to chose the surgical technique that best suits them, and allow us to simply get on with our lives. It’s a no-brainer. It’s a human rights issue and human rights issues should always be a priority.”

Political will to support the needs of trans people seems to be a common idea shared amoung the community, and Hague says that “making sure that gender identity is properly recognised in human rights legislation is really important.” He goes on to say that this is “because one of the crucial issues that trans and intersex people face is discrimination and misunderstanding of their needs from health service providers.”

However, the politician says that the real barrier to the adequate provision of GRS, and related services such as mental health and endocrinology, is sufficient funding and political will from the Government.

With increased demand and currently no specialised surgeons to perform these procedures, the fifty year backlog can only increase without Government intervention.

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