Tipping points, Sylvan Thomson

First Lady – From Boyhood to Womanhood: The Incredible Story of New Zealand’s Sex-change Pioneer 
Liz Roberts with Alison Mau
Upstart Press, $40.00, ISBN 9781927262375

Sexual Cultures in Aotearoa New Zealand Education
Alexandra C Gunn and Lee A Smith (eds)
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781877578687

2014 was the transgender tipping point. At least that’s what Time Magazine declared, with its front cover featuring the transgender actress Laverne Cox poised mid-step, svelte and powerful, beside the subheading “Men cannot become women. Women cannot become men”. This heading  – possibly perplexing to those unfamiliar with transgender issues – is part of the media’s growing sensitivity towards trans identities: if someone born male wants to be a woman, then they always were a woman; it is society that categorised them as a man.

In sociology, a tipping point occurs when a group quickly and noticeably changes the way it behaves by adopting a previously uncommon practice. The term is adapted from physics, where it refers to adding very small amounts of weight to a balanced object until, with one final addition, the object topples (think Jenga, or the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back).

This tipping point is what I kept thinking about while reading First Lady, Liz Roberts’s story of being the first New Zealander to undergo full sex reassignment surgery in New Zealand; to get to a tipping point there must first be many small additions of weight and, though these weights might not seem to disrupt the equilibrium at the time, they are just as crucial as the weight that finally topples the object, breaks the camel or collapses the Jenga tower.

First Lady is narrated with a brutal, conversational chirpiness, as it rattles its way through experiences so traumatic that, in a life other than Roberts’s, any one of them could be the centrepiece of a memoir. Alison Mau’s Writer’s Note that prefaces the book concludes with the line “although Liz’s life story is an important one legally and historically, it is really, at its heart, simply a bloody good yarn”, and this sentiment plays out as the book unfolds; there is little emotional depth here, nor any real historical context regarding transgender rights elsewhere in the world, but, then again, those things don’t really contribute to a bloody good yarn.

What I found most surprising was how First Lady did not focus on Roberts’s transition nearly as much as you might expect from a book with the sensational tagline “The incredible story of New Zealand’s sex change pioneer”; instead, the reader ends up spending much of their time backstage, or in hair salons and sewing rooms, as Roberts hurtles through a yo-yoing career in high fashion, make-up artistry, hair dressing and costume design. Though it was satisfying to see Roberts presented as a fully rounded person and not just as a fascinating medical specimen – something the media usually can’t seem to stop itself from doing – I did often want to know more about Roberts’s inner life.

As someone who has come of age in the long shadow of the internet, who is used to the identity-obsessed discourse of the left-leaning media, I expected a transgender woman’s memoir to spend much more time narrating how she felt about herself. I read the whole book waiting for passages about Roberts wrestling with her own identity, but they never came: at the heart of the book there is a sort of deafening emotional silence. I started to write critically about this but, half way in, I realised that thinking about one’s identity in this way is, to a certain extent, a generational luxury. If you were transgender and born in 1940s New Zealand, there simply weren’t the terminology or the support networks in place for this kind of thinking. I suspect that Roberts didn’t conceive of her transition in terms of identity, instead she simply got on with the incredibly difficult job of transitioning. The closest she gets to discussing her sense of herself as a woman occurs early on in the book, when she narrates the time she spent at a correctional facility for boys (where she was sent because of her unmanly interest in making puppets). Roberts remarks: “It was there at the age of thirteen or fourteen that I first had the revolutionary thought that there was no way I was going to live my life as a man.” This decision, to live her life as a woman, took decades to be satisfyingly realised and led to years of verbal and physical abuse, prejudice, cruelty and marginalisation, but Roberts never pauses to navel-gaze. Her use of hormones is barely touched upon, and her surgeries, which include gender reassignment surgeries as well as a stomach stapling procedure, are described in painful – but unemotional – clinical detail.

The experiences Roberts had as a gender non-conforming child in 1940s and 50s New Zealand (long before anyone would ever think to use the phrase “gender non-conforming child”), the prejudice she experienced throughout her life, and her experimental surgeries in the 1960s, all forcibly reminded me that we didn’t get to Laverne Cox on Time Magazine or Caitlyn Jenner on Vanity Fair overnight. It has taken decades for transgender people to get to a tipping point, and none of it could have happened without women like Roberts.

Sexual Cultures in Aotearoa New Zealand Education is a collection of scholarly articles examining how heteronormativity (the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm) affects education in New Zealand. Some of the articles are case studies of particular New Zealand high schools (“How are teenage males redefining masculinity and heterosexuality?”, “Queer students and same-sex partners at the school formal”), whereas others function more as a call to action, encouraging educators to bring queer agendas to the classroom by ensuring picture books which include gay households are present in schools, or urging individual teachers to examine their own behaviour for a heteronormative bias. The book’s blurb states that its main focus is heteronormativity, but there are also a number of articles which move beyond this, with contributors examining the experiences of Māori and Pasifika students, transgender people and teenage mothers in New Zealand.

Reading this book made me try to remember my own experiences of heteronormativity at high school. I have only one vivid memory of a sexual  health class, in which my bold best friend raised her hand and asked our semi-butch PE teacher, “Miss, are you a lesbian?” I found out later that Miss was a lesbian, but, at the time, Miss just turned a rosy red and told us that the question was “inappropriate”. We all sniggered cruelly and – even though I had two close friends with lesbian mothers and now would happily describe myself as queer – I was not above sniggering myself. My performing arts teacher, on the other hand, was a proud dyke with a tattoo of Ursula and the Little Mermaid making out on her upper arm.

I bring up my two lesbian high school teachers because they seem to me to say something about the complicated nature of sexuality and education. What a number of articles in Sexual Cultures in Aotearoa New Zealand Education return to is the notion that, though the New Zealand Curriculum and Te Whāriki, the Ministry of Education’s early childhood curriculum policy, are both documents that allow for diversity, it often falls to individual educators to ensure that heteronormativity is challenged. The collection also acknowledges the tendency teenagers have for policing themselves and others for displays of difference, sexual or otherwise, which they often outgrow by the time they get to university (see: sniggering).

Perhaps my poor health teacher just didn’t want to share some aspects of her life with her students, but I suspect that it was more to do with the culture of the school, which, though not actively homophobic, was passively heteronormative, meaning she did not feel comfortable being open about her sexuality in that setting. My performing arts teacher, however, made an effort to constantly challenge heteronormativity. In the sixth form, we did a performance of Heavenly Creatures, her partner and their child often visited our classroom and she dressed queer, like a 90s Goth attending a punk show in the Harajuku district. I do remember her mentioning the snootiness of some of the other staff members, and it can’t have been easy (though of course I did not frame it this way at the time) to be constantly trying to queer the culture of a heteronormative high school.

Sexual Cultures in Aotearoa New Zealand Education reminded me of how far we still have to go. Though New Zealand allows gay marriage, has advanced human rights legislation and a number of openly gay and transgender politicians, if you were to judge by the essays in this collection, education in New Zealand, for all age groups, is still overwhelmingly heteronormative. Even the article focusing on queer-straight alliances in New Zealand secondary schools (“Acknowledging and working double binds”) examines how these groups end up being pathologised – conceived of by non-members as support groups for abnormal or at-risk students, whereas their aim is to celebrate the shared agendas of queer and straight students.

We still live in a world where, for most people, queerness is Other, where you are assumed to be straight or cisgender until you actively declare otherwise. Though this can be changed at a policy level, it must inevitably fall to individuals to make queerness more visible, more accepted and less other. This is unfortunate, because queer people are already busy surviving (suicide rates among LGBTQ youth are significantly higher than among the general population) but, as we already have an inclusive curriculum, it will fall to educators, queer parents, queer students and allies, to force the straight world to re-think their assumptions. Sexual Cultures in Aotearoa New Zealand Education is a much needed text that works hard to expose the pervasiveness of heteronormativity, something that, for most people, is invisible. I hope that this book ends up being read by teachers and teachers-in-training, rather than just by other academics in the field of sexual culture.

Sylvan Thomson is a writer of short stories and nonfiction; this year he begins an MFA in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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Posted in Gender, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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