Tuesday, January 20, 2009

News from New Zealand

In a programme recently replayed on Radio New Zealand as part of the "best of" Kim Hill from 2008, Hill interviewed Mani Bruce Mitchell about the challenges of being an intersex person - one born with genetic and physical variations that mean they are neither wholly male nor female.

One point in particular struck me. Mani Mitchell told how she was born to parents in a small country community and at first was treated as a boy. But she had a uterus and, at the age of one, she had an operation and became Margaret.

The community held a meeting in the local hall to discuss how it should deal with this unusual situation. Mani Mitchell described this as an example of a rural community functioning as it its absolute best.

Hill seemed momentarily taken aback by this and asked if her guest was being sarcastic, to which Mani Mitchell assured her that she wasn't. The community agreed at that meeting to close the door on her past life as a boy and from that time on she was accepted as Margaret.

What was interesting was Hill's initial reaction. It seemed that, for a moment at least, she had difficulty accepting that a community in rural New Zealand in the conservative 1950s could have reacted to this predicament in a compassionate, positive way, rather than demanding that this freakish child be cast out.

It's common among sophisticated urban types to equate rural communities with bigotry and ignorance, but history shows country people are a lot more liberal and tolerant than urban stereotypes give them credit for.

It was a supposedly conservative rural electorate that elected feminist MP Marilyn Waring and kept returning her to Parliament even after Truth newspaper outed her as a lesbian. And it was a supposedly conservative rural electorate that voted for the world's first transsexual MP, Georgina Beyer.

The liberal farmer politician - of whom Tom Shand, minister of labour in the Holyoake government of the 1960s, is often held up as an example - is a recurring figure in New Zealand politics. Sir Keith Holyoake himself was from that mould and so too was Jim Bolger, who threw his weight behind the Treaty settlements of the 1990s.

Sure, you find rednecks and philistines in the country, just as you do in the cities, but not all country people have hair on the palms of their hands and eyes in the middle of the their foreheads.

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Organisation Intersex International