Agender Conference 2008: Celebrating Our GenderJustice
Thank you for the opportunity to be part of tonight's political forum. I believe this is a great way to start your Conference especially as it gives all parties the opportunity to respond to the groundbreaking report of the Human Rights Commission: "To Be Who I Am."
This report was published a matter of weeks before I received my delegations as an Associate Minister of Justice. It is always challenging to step into a new portfolio responsibility, but even more so when there is something as important as this to address.
I am very pleased with the government's response and I will address that in a minute, but first I want to acknowledge the achievement that this report represents and to acknowledge the Human Rights Commission for this – this is the result of the world’s first inquiry by a national human rights institution into discrimination experienced by transgender people.
And it is for that reason that it is even more important, that I acknowledge and pay respect to the enormous courage displayed by those people who were willing to share their intensely personal and diverse experiences with the inquiry team. I always find it humbling that people are prepared to set aside the personal risk that such exposure may represent to them in order that understanding may be built, that fear of the unknown may be assuaged and that prejudice may therefore be diminished.
I recall in the Third Reading of the Civil Union Act I commented on the effects of prejudice, which I described as a bias—a preconceived opinion. It can involve prejudging people, based on a characteristic like race or ethnicity, or on a grouping they belong to, like a political party. I have often said that prejudice is based on ignorance, and that knowledge is the most powerful weapon against it. Being very aware of those who said that sexuality was a 'lifestyle choice' when it is neither, I deliberately made the point that prejudice against people because of a lifestyle choice is often based on ignorance because it is not a lifestyle choice that they would choose for themselves, nor one they can readily understand. It is therefore vital that we build understanding between people who are different.
The example of lifestyle choice I used that day was religious belief, a lifestyle that many New Zealanders are born into or adopt during their lives. People often do not understand the faith that others place in their God, and they can be prejudiced against them as a result. One does not have to share the faith to have an understanding of, and respect for, the right of such people to hold that faith and to worship their God in their own way. I made the point that I had been brought up in the Catholic faith. We were taught, and this was reinforced every Sunday, that ours was the one true faith. How lucky was that—to be born into a family that was Catholic, the only faith that counted!
Actually, I had a lot of luck on my side when I chose the circumstances of my birth. I was born into majority status in every respect—white, female, and heterosexual. I was born to be who I am.
This report provides us with an insight into the lives of and challenges faced by those who cannot say 'I was born to be who I am'. Even the title helps build understanding. It is something I take for granted. It is important as a decision-maker that I understand the perspective of those who cannot take anything for granted.
This report lies testament to the strength displayed by transgender people on a day to day basis.
I am inspired by the stories of people like Constable Sarah Lurajud who I must mention because I knew her as Aranui's Community Constable before she faced up to what must have been one of the most significant challenges of her life. I would have thought even without reading her words that she would have faced multiple barriers in transitioning while serving as a police officer. Her success is truly inspirational and with her position now including the role of police diversity officer, she is helping to break down the very prejudices and lack of understanding she had to overcome.
People like Jacqui Grant, affectionately known as the “tranny granny”, has battled intense prejudice to become (among other things) a highly successful businesswoman, district councillor, a foster mother to over 70 children, a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit and now a member of the Human Rights Review Tribunal.
Although they and others like my former colleague, Georgina Beyer, are the role models that others have not had, the report makes it clear that there remains much to be done.
But in saying that it is also important that people claim the rights they have. When Georgina produced a Bill to amend the Human Rights Act to make it clear that discrimination on the basis of gender identity was prohibited, the Crown Law Office provided advice that the existing prohibition on sex discrimination already extends to gender identity. But this is not effective unless people know they have these rights and are prepared to act on them. I have decided not to pursue an amendment to the Act but to help spread the word that the protection is already there.
I have also asked officials from the Ministry of Justice to oversee and coordinate the assessment and implementation of the report’s recommendations and have asked them to provide me with a progress report in a year's time. Already, there are significant steps being undertaken that will see the report implemented:
• the Supplementary Order Paper to the Births, Deaths and Marriages Amendment Bill, which is currently before Parliament, proposes to allow the Family Court to make a declaration as to sex for overseas born New Zealand citizens;
• the Commission will soon host a meeting of government agencies to share and develop best practice for searches of transgender people, with a similar meeting about detention and imprisonment practices to follow;
• the Ministry of Justice is investigating options for recording information about crimes against transgender people to ensure that violence against such people is no longer invisible in crime statistics and surveys;
• The Ministry of Justice is also exploring options for disclosure of previous names where a police clearance is required.
I am very conscious that one of the key recommendations of the report is to increase consultation and collaboration with transgender people on issues that affect them. This approach will be the first step in institutionalising policy development that is inclusive of transgender perspectives. The disability communities have coined the phrase 'not about us without us' and that I am sure resonates with transgender communities as well.
So on that note, I will end by reiterating the appreciation I offer to the Human Rights Commission for this world first report and the heartfelt thanks I offer to those who provided their personal perspective to the inquiry for sharing their experiences so that others may gain from them.