New Zealand Labour Party

Putting the rungs back on the ladder – Kelly Ellis


I grew up in Wellington but left there 23 years ago and I have been moving steadily north ever since – I anticipate being in the Cook Islands at this rate. 
Growing up, I spent time in foster care and a children’s home. I was kicked out of school but eventually I went to night school for school certificate and then studied journalism at Wellington Polytechnic.

I joined the Taihape Times in 1981 – the same year as the Springboks tour. Then I went to Australia to work on a motorbike magazine – motorbikes are a passion, I still have two, I raced semi-professionally too but that’s another story.

I came back to New Zealand – because I love this country dearly - and decided that studying law would be a good way to acquire my dreams. They were pretty much the same as most people’s: Somewhere to live, somewhere to work, someone to love and something to hope for. Of course, that’s a rip-off of Norman Kirk circa 1972 – but it’s true. Norman Kirk hadn’t made that speech when I was living in the orphanage but even then I knew that was what I wanted.

There’s nothing like an experience like that to help you work out what is important. The orphanage was no home or family and I felt no love, and I wanted that. I also learned, looking at the other kids looking out of the windows every day to see if someone was coming to get them, that hope is one of the last things to die.

So how did I come to be candidate for Whangarei? I had been involved with Labour on and off, as a member and through being involved in a Labour law group in Hamilton for a while. Then I did a gender transition. It was a very slow and incremental change which started in 2005 – but I quickly realised that I had joined the ranks of one of the most vilified and oppressed minorities around.

I won’t say it was a surprise but I did find it hard to understand why people should be so horrified at something that strikes me as inoffensive and innocuous.

I’m educated, I have somewhere to live. Someone to love, somewhere to work and something to hope for. Most people in the transgender community don’t have that.

So, I started doing pro bono work for transgender clients including prisoners. Until 10 February this year, transgender prisoners had to undergo a strict physical conformity and, if you had not undergone gender reassignment, you would be put in a men’s prison.

 At that stage I was living down a dirt track, out of sight of the world but, to help advance the cause of transgender prisoners, I had to put my head above the trench and lobby.  Auckland University’s Equal Justice project got involved and we presented a compelling case to the Ministry of Corrections on the unlawfulness of these prisoner placements.  Corrections Minister Anne Tolley didn’t have much choice really – and now transgender prisoners are integrated into jails appropriate to their gender.

For me, that had been achieved by collaborating with motivated, principled people. It also forced me out from behind the ridge where I live with my family, not to mention 30 pigs and lots of cats and a dog.

Then, of course, came Louisa Wall’s Marriage Equality Bill - so there was no ducking back behind the ridge – as a transgender advocate I had to battle for that. I wrote a submission for the Select Committee and had my arm twisted to feature on 60 Minutes along the way.

As a result of this, the Labour lawyers in Whangarei asked me to get involved in re-establishing a viable LEC in Whangarei, which we have done, and in finding a candidate  - so here I am.

I guess, if it was not for being transgender, I would still be living my private, hetero, ‘normal’ life down the lane – but even if I wasn’t campaigning for transgender or marriage equality, I would still be wondering how my sons will survive in this increasingly difficult world.

I want them to have opportunities and, while it might sound trite, even with my background there were a number of rungs on the ladder I could grab hold of.  There was free night school, free polytech and an almost free law degree.

Those are the rungs on the ladder I used to drag myself out of a pretty impoverished and crappy existence and those are the rungs on the ladder which National has sawn off.

Having scaled that ladder, I want to see the rungs put back on – so that my boys, and every other person in New Zealand who needs that ladder, can have those opportunities too.