Kiwi transgender woman considers surgery overseas as local demand soars

A Kiwi transgender woman is considering getting her gender affirmation surgery done overseas as demand in New Zealand for the service soars. 

Ella Jenkins, 23, was put on the list for surgery in October but says she hasn't heard anything since, and is now considering going overseas. That could set her back around $35,000, so her partner has set up a Givealittle page.

"I have not heard anything since an email in October saying 'you're on the list', which is a bit disheartening" Jenkins, from Christchurch, told Newshub Late. 

"I've asked my doctor to see if she had any updates on her end, but no, she hasn't had anything either."

Looking overseas to get gender affirmation surgery done is something many trans people in New Zealand consider because of the long wait. Last year, nine surgeries were performed from a list of nearly 400.

The number of people referred to the waitlist increased by 160 percent between 2018 and 2020.

Those who've waited the longest are prioritised and in some cases it's a decades-long wait.

Jenkins says it's taking a toll on her mental health, combined with anxiety about anti-transgender activist Posie Parker's planned visit to New Zealand

"Transgender stuff is a lot more controversial, especially with speakers like the one in Melbourne calling us groomers, labelling us paedos, and saying it's only cosmetic. It doesn't help our cause in the slightest," Jenkins told Newshub Late. 

"So, we're forced to go overseas, in terms of operations, and we're forced to live with the strain - with this fear, almost. 

"I wish that the Government would pay for my surgery overseas... even if they could just pay for that, I would gladly pay for my air fares, to know that I could be seen within one or two years as opposed to 20 or so."

Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand acknowledged that waiting for surgeries can be a difficult time for patients and their whānau. 

"We urge anyone who is waiting for surgery and is concerned about their wellbeing, to reach out to their trusted healthcare provider," Interim National Clinical Director Dr Pete Watson told Newshub Late. 

"Gender-affirming surgery is a complex and specialist procedure that requires a multi-disciplinary team and there is only one surgeon in New Zealand that is trained and capable of performing the surgery.

"There is an increasing demand for the service. Due to the complex nature of these cases, it takes time to work through the assessment process."

The Government's Budget last year included $2.2 million for gender-affirming care, like hormone therapy, and $2.5 million to train GPs in advising trans youth.

There was no new money for gender affirmation surgeries - they're still being funded from the 2019 boost of $3 million over four years.