Transgender reclassification hailed

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“Happy days” was how children’s book author Kyle Mewburn, of Millers Flat, responded to the recent decision by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to change its definition of transgender from being a mental health disorder.

Ms Mewburn said a mental health disorder classification was demeaning.

“People who are uncomfortable with it like something scientific they can grasp and go ‘Oh well, it’s a mental illness, like you’ve got cancer or leprosy, oh poor you’.”

For Ms Mewburn, being transgender felt more like a physical deformity: “Inside, I didn’t match my outside.

“I always felt I was different, but it was more like a curse than an illness. I was thinking ‘why me, what have I done’, almost like a deformity – like if you were born with three legs.”

After more than 25 years of hiding her true identity, Ms Mewburn told her wife, Marion, she was transgender, and found acceptance and support from her.

“People don’t grasp what a driving force it is, whether you are gay, lesbian, bi, whatever – it’s such a fundamental, elemental part of your existence – to deny it, why should you? It’s not a mental illness, it’s who you are. Why shouldn’t you be who you are?”

Co-ordinator of the WHO’s adolescents and at-risk populations team Dr Lale Say said historically, gender incongruence was placed within the mental health chapter of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

The latest revision of the classification, ICD-11, would move gender incongruence/transgender to a newly created chapter called sexual health, Dr Say said.

“We had a better understanding that this wasn’t actually a mental health condition and leaving it there was causing stigma.”

Removing gender incongruence from the mental health chapter was expected to help better social acceptance of individuals living with gender incongruence, Dr Say said.

New Zealand Human Rights Commission adviser on sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics Taine Polkinghorne said many medical insurance providers would only cover what was in the ICD.

“The challenge for this updated version was to keep trans identities in the document in a way that didn’t pathologise transgender people as psychologically or medically abnormal.

“All-out removal would mean that thousands of trans people would lose access to their medical care instantly.

“Gender diversity is not an illness. The previous practice of including trans communities in the chapter on mental and behavioural disorders contributed to the exclusion of trans people from their basic human rights, including the right to identity and self-determination.”

The updated ICD-11 would be presented for a vote on final approval at the World Health Assembly in May next year, Mr Polkinghorne said.

A Ministry of Health spokesman said the ministry supported the WHO classification change.

“Evidence indicates that being able to express one’s gender identity improves the health and wellbeing of trans and gender-diverse people.”

Gender reassignment surgery was publicly funded at a rate of three male-to-female surgeries and one female-to-male surgery every two years.

The waiting list for surgery, funded through the High Cost Treatment pool at present, stood at 106 people (80 male to female, and 26 female to male).