Taupuruariki Brightwell talks gender identity

By Talisa Kupenga

The Te Ao: Rangatahi series provides a platform for youth to talk about issues important to them, ask questions, and get answers from those in charge. 

As a trans wahine Taupuruariki 'Ariki' Brightwell is calling for improvements in services for the wider LGBTQ+ community and those struggling with gender identity.

Brightwell hails from Gisborne. She's proud to be trans and proud to be Māori.

"I purely identify as wahine.  Other wahine identify as trans or in between, it can vary depending on the individual," she says.

However, Brightwell says it has not always been this easy.

"Everyone has different fears and challenges.  I think my one was being accepted by my family because whakapapa is everything, especially to Māori and whakapapa is also your identity so losing or not knowing what your identity is is also a very deep blow to your mana and your wairua."

At 23 years old, Brightwell moved to Wellington where her journey of self-discovery started.

She says many Māori who come from small towns or small communities feel there's a lack of information or understanding when it comes to trans or LGBTQ+ issues.

“I knew I felt different than other people but I didn't know why and there was nothing there to tell me what these feelings were.

"Due to Wellington's diverse community, I managed to meet people and learn things that I would never truly understand about myself that helped develop me as a person and eventually become who I really am."

Brightwell says the government, health and education sectors need to step up to help kiwis better learn and understand trans community members, and that more resources should be given to schools because rangatahi ''get hit the hardest".

"There is not really any programme established for surgery.  There is a wait list, two years ago, I remember it was about 40-years to wait but the waiting list has grown bigger and the government is slowly finding ways to find surgeons who can perform surgery.

"The medication is subsidised once you get permission to have it, which can sometimes take up to a year, but for those that have trouble accessing that resource they tend to go towards the black market or other sources to acquire that."

After a four-year wait, New Zealand welcomed its only sex-change surgeon in 2018.  The surgeon is qualified to perform affirmation surgery for both genders, but she is yet to establish a specialist team. Those at the beehive agree there are shortcomings across the board.

Labour Rainbow spokesperson Louisa Wall says she believes young people are leading the way.

“We've had focus on gender-neutral bathrooms for example which have been driven in some schools by the young people themselves. But I do think...the education system should be doing a lot more and the health system obviously needs to do a lot more, but, there are capacity issues so I'm not going to disagree with that."

Green Party rainbow issues spokesperson Jan Logie says she’s calling for there to be an office within government to represent the rainbow community.

‘We've got the office of disabilities and seniors and youth development and Te Puni Kōkiri and Pacific people and ethnic communities and women but nothing for our LGBTQ+ communities and I think we need somebody, like a link, to help progress our needs in government.

Last year the government changed the state-funded surgery limit of three male-to-female surgeries and one female-to-male surgery every two years to now be a two-year minimum, rather than a cap.  There are approximately 100 people on the waiting list.

Wall says there has been “huge movement’’ because last year eight people underwent gender reassignment surgery.

“But I do think people still having to wait ten years possibly to have that surgery is a very long time and what concerns me is that when people have to wait because they're in a body they don’t like, there are mental health issues and drug and alcohol issues and issues of depression and I think we have to move a lot faster."

Brightwell wants youth who may be struggling with gender identity to remain strong.

"At my lowest point I came to a crossroads where my identity sat and I had two choices; to live or to die and I chose to live.  In choosing to live I fought for my right to exist, I fought my independence and fought for my family to accept me and I do not regret one part about it."