Gender refugee hopes for NZ citizenship

  • 26/07/2015
Gender refugee hopes for NZ citizenship

A pretty brunette in her mid-20s rocks up to passport control. She presents them with an ID photo that shows a macho bearded Latino. Imagine the surprise. At first, Customs officials laugh.

"It's not a joke," she says.

She is not a master of disguise, a spy or drug dealer with cocaine in her implants, as they suggest. She is simply a woman who used to be a man. Luis is the man in the passport. She is transgender, she explains, in the midst of changing from male to female. It is the beginning of her Orwellian nightmare.

The airport is Hong Kong. Eliana Rubashkyn is a Colombian pharmacist in the second year of her MBA at Taipei University.  She had just discovered she was intersex, that is she has both male and female chromosomes.

Raised as a boy, Eliana had always felt she was a woman. In Taiwan she started a course of hormone modulation to magnify her female qualities and suppress her male ones. The treatment had a miraculous effect. Her body shape changed, breasts grew, voice got higher, and even the structure of her face altered. But the speed of the change caused more problems than she could possibly have imagined.

Taiwanese university authorities asked Eliana to update the ID photo on her passport because she looked so different. As Colombia has no diplomatic relations with Taiwan, she had to travel 90 minutes to Hong Kong to visit the Colombian consulate there. She packed two shirts and two pairs of pants, expecting to be there just one night.

When they checked her passport at Hong Kong, the beard wasn't the only problem; her transformation to a woman was so radical even the biometrics – the distance between features on her face – did not compute. Eliana was treated like a criminal. Actually she was treated worse than a criminal, as criminals have certain rights. She was stripped naked for nine hours, physically and sexually assaulted. Only the intervention of Amnesty International and local activists got her released from detention. But that was far from the end of it.

Hong Kong immigration kept her passport. She couldn't go back to Taipei where she lived, or any other country for that matter. The only place she was permitted to go was Colombia, under a deportation order. That was not a good option for Eliana. In her home town, Bogota, right-wing militias roam the streets practising something called "social cleansing" against minorities, including the transgendered community. Eliana had twice been attacked while out cross-dressing; once they nearly killed her.

So Eliana was stuck in Hong Kong without a passport. The only way she could leave was by throwing herself on the mercy of the United Nations, requesting they make her a refugee – a gender refugee. Her case attracted international attention. She appeared on CNN, a cause célèbre for the transgender movement.

Within 10 days the UN made history, and Eliana became the world's first trans woman to be recognised as a female under international law, though her troubles didn't stop there.

Eliana had retrieved her gender identity and lost her national one. She was stateless and stuck in a country where she had actually ceased to exist. Hong Kong is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention for Refugees, so Eliana was persona-non-grata. Her options elsewhere were very limited. Most countries would not accept Eliana as a female refugee unless she underwent sexual reassignment surgery – a procedure that was impossible in her circumstances, and not something she wanted to rush into.

For nine months Eliana, stranded and penniless, slept on the streets of Hong Kong, on the floors of HIV testing rooms, and for several months in a shipping container. Eventually it was New Zealand that accepted her as a refugee. She settled in Auckland last year hoping her bureaucratic woes would be over. Not quite.

Eliana is still without a passport of any kind. Her only travel document is an identity paper, which recognises her as a woman with residency in New Zealand. She has been told it may take five years before she receives her citizenship here. It took her a year to get her driver's licence ratified. Professionally she has been told she is more qualified than most Kiwi pharmacists, but Eliana, who speaks five languages, is having troubles getting her qualifications accepted by the professional body here. She is working for minimum wage in a call centre.

One thing has definitely worked out for her though. Eliana is profoundly in love. But the long arm of bureaucracy is threatening that too. While living in the shipping container in Hong Kong, she met her sweetheart, Itamar, online. He's a welder from Israel. She is Jewish and wanted to meet a straight boy with the same religion as her – quite an ask, but she found him and they totally clicked.

Despite the protestations of his orthodox parents, Itamar travelled to Auckland and married her a month later.

Last week the immigration department was on the verge of throwing him out of the country. That would effectively put a geographical end to their relationship. Without a passport Eliana cannot live in any other country. After 3D requested an interview with Immigration, Itamar got a visa for 12 months. It could have been coincidence, but either way, it's a welcome stay of execution for these newcomers.

Eventually Eliana and Itamar hope to have a baby together. Physiologically, that is absolutely on the cards. Eliana has an ovary and uterus. However, as refugees, the sexual reassignment surgery that would complete Eliana's transformation is well out of reach for them financially. There is a fund that has been started to help them with the $15,000 surgery cost.

Eliana hopes that as more people like her tell their story, we can begin to loosen our grip on the binary nature of gender. Whether you are male or female she says "is something which exists in our heads not between our legs".

"There is not one gender or another gender, like opposite ideals. There is a full spectrum of ways to be. We need to accept that things are more colourful than just black and white."