Trans women and non-binary people locating, negotiating, and maintaining social relationships. (2022)
Type of ContentTheses / Dissertations
Thesis DisciplineHuman Services
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
This qualitative research into the daily lives of 50 mainly older trans women and non-binary people in Aotearoa New Zealand explored aspects of their social relationships in a society which has many different ethnicities and expressions of womanhood. The thesis draws on Foucauldian thought and discourse analysis. Mention is made of three cosmologies and Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi) which have helped shape the social and legal context of life in Aotearoa New Zealand. The Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986 heralded an era of comparatively benign legislations which prioritized relationships over genders. Previously sexual and gender minorities had actively resisted legal restrictions on sexual intimacies by opening a range of clubs, bars, coffee shops, and support groups.
Participants not only discussed good times and bad but also, and importantly, their coping strategies in the face of feeling uneasy because they did not quite fit in with their peers, bullying at school, tough times on the street, in hospital, or in the workplace. My first finding was that participants shared their good times of experiencing personal support and strong ties (Granovetter, 1973) from extended families, partners, long-time friends, workplaces, and church and support groups. They reminisced about the richness of weak ties (Granovetter, 1973) with casual acquaintances, conference delegates, children playing in the street, and traffic police. Many highlighted the profound effects fleeting but affirming moments with strangers had brought them. In addition, travel stood out as a transformative experience for some of the participants.
The principal finding is the use of gender expression as a device to help maintain valued personal relationships with partners, family, friends, business colleagues, and others. Nine trans women presented as male from time to time or in the presence of their family when they felt that presenting as women would hinder communication between them. Some trans women negotiated such occasions with their partners, for example when they were needed to present as father of the bride, or when travelling overseas. Some chose to avoid complicated discussions by presenting as male to make things easier for themselves such as when undergoing medical treatment for conditions that applied only to males. Other participants dressed only when their partner would be absent and would be very unlikely to know anything of their womanhood. An interesting variation of gender expression as a strategic device occurred in longer-term situations when trans women holidayed with friends and presented as male for the duration.
A third finding was that older participants were happy with their lives. A very few of the younger participants in their thirties and forties were still struggling with issues to do with appearance, mental health challenges, housing, or relationship difficulties. The older women had weathered the storms of social and medical transition, and now mainly found enjoyment in life despite the occasional incident of harassment. Many had had skills that made them employable, and they had found their niche in the workplace.
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