Gender affirmation surgery: I'm on the list and want Kiwis to know why it should be publicly funded

  • Opinion
  • 11/06/2022
Ella Jenkins on why gender affirmation surgery should be funded.
Ella Jenkins on why gender affirmation surgery should be funded. Photo credit: Ella Jenkins

OPINION: After appearing on Newshub to tell my story last week, I noticed that in the comment section on Facebook there was support for the cause of transgender health, but also people commenting their disagreement with what was published. 

There were several reasons why people disagreed with funding life-changing gender affirmation care, some of which I wish to address here. 

The first argument I saw against funding gender reassignment surgery in New Zealand was that being transgender is a choice. Put simply, no it is not. 

In my experience - and I suspect many other transgender New Zealanders - if we were given the choice to be comfortable in the bodies we were born with, then we would take that choice. 

Being trans is not easy. It is a life full of discomfort and sadness that one cannot expect to understand without experiencing it themselves or supporting a relative. To say that it is a choice is ignorant at best and transphobic at worst.

Another argument was that surgeries should not be publicly-funded because they are cosmetic. Whilst at first glance that may appear to be the case, there is much more to it for transgender people. 

Because of the disconnect between our brains and our bodies, some transgender people experience immense grief. The grief has a detrimental effect on a transgender person's mental health. For the transgender community, these surgeries are life-improving at best, and for some it's life-saving, as it helps to cure the grief, thus improving mental health. 

One argument that was quite common was that transgender people should "fund it themselves." 

I feel in New Zealand that no-one should have to fund such life-improving procedures such as gender affirmation. I believe people make this argument out of the belief that these procedures are purely cosmetic when they are much more than that. 

As a transgender myself, this sentiment bothers me as it potentially implies that because we are transgender, if we cannot afford it, then we should not be able to access this life-changing care. It feels that no other quality-of-life-improving procedures are put under such scrutiny by the New Zealand public like gender affirmation is.

A final common complaint about gender affirmation care and its funding is "what about my knee replacement?" or "what about cancer patients?" 

Gender affirmation surgery: I'm on the list and want Kiwis to know why it should be publicly funded

These complaints are unjustified. It is disappointing that in New Zealand cancer treatment and knee replacements take as long as they do in the public system, and no-one is arguing about that. 

The transgender community is not out to secure funding for gender affirmation by taking it from cancer patients or knee replacements. Surgeries like knee replacements and gender affirmation are similar in that they are both subject to long waits. But they differ in the fact that for transgender people the wait is much longer, and the implications of that wait could be much more severe.

As a transgender person, the fact that the lack of funding for gender affirming care in New Zealand is such a divisive issue, is disheartening. It is sad to see some New Zealanders imply that we do not deserve that basic human right, because "it's a choice" or because "it's only cosmetic". 

For the transgender community, it is much more than that. We just want to live our lives without the distress that is caused by the disconnect between the brain and body. I believe that if those who were making critical comments understood how the potential mental anguish of being transgender affects day to day life, they would not make such comments.

I would hope that if those comments were made out of ignorance that perhaps those misconceptions can be addressed, and that people stop circulating them. They are potentially harmful to the transgender community. 

I feel that New Zealand is not openly hostile towards the transgender community, but there are some people that perpetuate casual transphobia, over something as basic as transgender people accessing the healthcare they need.

Ella Jenkins is a Kiwi trans woman