The New Zealand government has lifted a cap on gender reassignment surgery to address a 30-year plus waiting list.
Under the previous government the state funded three male-to-female surgeries and one female-to-male every two years. The waiting list for around 100 people stretched into the decades.
Under the new Labour coalition government the old cap will become the new minimum number of surgeries to be performed every two years.
The news was greeted with elation by the trans community, who said they felt they were finally being respected and acknowledged by the government.
“It is going to make such a lot of different to a lot of people, and there is great relief and excitement in the trans community,” said Lynda Whitehead, an advocate for Tranzaction Aoteroa.
“It gives people hope, and before there was very little or no hope. As a community we have been ignored and put on the back burner for a long time. But it feels like our concerns have finally fallen on sympathetic ears.”
In the 1990s New Zealand was a world leader in reassignment surgery, with the comparatively low cost of the operation and progressive attitude towards the delicate procedure attracting patients from around the globe.
But when the country’s only specialist surgeon retired in 2014, the waiting list for the complex and costly procedure ballooned, with advocates saying trans people were getting increasing “desperate” and “frustrated” by the situation and taking risks with cut-rate surgeries overseas.
Vic Roper told the Guardian in 2016 that he saw “no point” in joining the waiting list for surgery as “by the time I got to the top of the list, I would be too old to appreciate it”.
“Trans people have an incredibly high suicide rate and this is practical action that will help people have an improved sense of mental health and wellbeing,” said Roper, who is scheduled for surgery in November.
“It was not a waiting list before, it was a ‘We’ll put your name here and never think about it again’ list. I feel the Labour government has a really different perspective on the country and who gets priority. They are really thinking about minority groups and trying to give them more of an even playing field.”
Dr Andy Simpson, New Zealand’s chief medical officer, said there were 111 people waiting for surgery: 84 male to female, and 27 female to male. It was unclear at this stage how long it would take to address the backlog but there was an interim
arrangement of referring patients at the top of the list to a surgeon in the private sector. “So far, eight patients have been referred to this private sector surgeon for consultation.”