Turning men into women: Peter Walker is retiring at 72, after helping 61 New Zealanders become the gender they are meant to be. After 22 years turning men into women, New Zealand's only sex change surgeon is hanging up his scalpel.
Peter Walker tells Sunday Magazine about changing bodies, minds and lives: It is striking, says Peter Walker, how very many of his patients, before they finally decided to become women, had chosen to live stereotypically masculine lives. Walker has operated on airline pilots, commandos, people who were in the SAS, "and if they didn't join the forces, they'd buy the biggest, gruntiest Harley Davidson, just to prove how macho they were. But finally they have to face themselves, and become the female they know they should be.
The Supreme Court recognised India's long marginalised transgender community as a third gender and, in a landmark judgement lauded by human rights groups, called on the government to ensure their equal treatment. Walker is a plastic surgeon. Until recently he was part of a three-surgeon team based in Christchurch that has performed 62 male-to-female gender-reassignment surgeries.
During a four-hour operation, colorectal surgeon Richard Perry creates the vagina, urologist Stephen Mark reorganises the urinary plumbing, and Walker deals with the external bits - removing or repurposing the male genitalia to create a simulacrum of female genitalia.
They've assessed hormonal and mental states, cut and folded flesh and skin, altered identities and transformed lives. They are among the first to obtain new documents on Tuesday, when a new law came into effect, legalising the registration of a transgender person's preferred gender in official state documents without requiring hormonal treatment, surgery or sterilisation. At the start, when the dollar was weak and the operation rare, private patients flocked from abroad, but of late, most of the unit's work has been publicly funded operations on New Zealanders.
But in February this year, Walker retired and the operations stopped. His eyesight is still excellent, his hands still steady, but at 72 it was time to wrap up. For the 61 New Zealanders on the waiting list for state-funded gender-reassignment surgery, progress has always been painfully slow. Contestants pose for pictures backstage before the Miss Tiffany's Universe transgender beauty contest on May 2, in Pattaya, Thailand.
The Miss Tiffany's Universe contest has taken place annually in Pattaya since and is broadcast live on Thai national television.
But with Walker gone, the male-to-female wait-list has now completely stalled. The Ministry of Health says operations will resume once a suitable surgeon is found, however Walker has written to all the plastic surgeons in the country to no avail. Ad Feedback "Until someone comes back from overseas with an interest in transgender surgery, I'm afraid nothing is going to happen. New Zealand might just have to send the patients overseas.
He has a refined English accent, perhaps a relic of the private schools he attended in Egypt until he was 10, or the New Zealand boarding schools he attended after that. His father was a Dutch diplomat, his mother an art teacher from Christchurch.
He has a whispery, halting way of speaking that can make him seem diffident, yet there's no mistaking the huge pride he takes in his work.
Gender reassignment was only ever a sideline. His bread and butter has been breast reductions and augmentations, nose jobs and tummy tucks, and reconstructive surgery in the wake of skin cancer. Then, Walker's delight in his handiwork was evident, as he tenderly touched the grafts on his patient's face and hands, and described the operative techniques with wide eyes.
He is similarly animated when describing gender reassignments. If detailed descriptions of surgery make you squeamish you might like to skip the next paragraph, but the details, says Walker, do matter.
While many male-to-female surgeries turn the penis inside out to make a vagina, the Christchurch unit builds a vagina out of a section of colon. Meanwhile, genitals are reconfigured: The operation is longer and more complex than the 'penile inversion' technique, but the result, Walker says, functions far better. If the ministry ends up sending male-to-female patients abroad, they're unlikely to get his "gold standard" operation, says Walker.
They're the most interesting group of patients," he says. Otherwise they're on the fringes of society. I want them to be able to take their place as a female in society. That's a congenital abnormality, and being transgender is equally a congenital abnormality.
In the case of male to female, it's just because an enzyme was missing at the time of gestation, which was needed to make the hormones that make the male brain think it's male. Genetics and prenatal hormones appear to be hugely important, but social factors may also play some part.
Walker hasn't exactly befriended his patients - "I'm a professional person, so I can't get too close" - but he certainly admires them. They've been merchant mariner captains. Unfortunately, there is still a residuum who have been ostracised at school and left as early as they could and ended up at the bottom of the heap, and had to, for example, become prostitutes. You have from aircraft pilots to prostitutes - the whole range.
He's operated on a Texan police officer. He's in email contact with an American pastor who has "a great following in her church - I think they probably do know she's transgender.
You have people who may get some sexual thrill from dressing as a woman, and they think they want to take it further. That's a cross-dresser, and that's the wrong patient. XX for female and XY for male as well as midway variations such as Klinefelter syndrome, where a male with XXY genes exhibits some female physical or psychological characteristics. There's anatomy - whether your body and reproductive organs are male or female.
There's psychological sex - whether you feel male or female. Then there's what Walker describes as "the sex of other people's perception": The operation is most successful if the patient is five foot two and demure and has a female shape and has female mannerisms. Walker has had patients say they're not particularly interested in penetrative sex - they just want to be able to go to the swimming pool and change. For a year-old, that might be quite enough.
I truly think I'm female. Now aged 51, she started living as a woman in her mids, soon after completing treatment for alcoholism at Hanmer Springs, and was on the waiting list for more than two decades.
She lives in the central North Island and works as a truck driver: My name was Dave, but in I changed it by deed poll. Before then, I'd drifted from place to place, from job to job. I'd been a high-country tractor driver, drove bulldozers. I worked as far down as Middlemarch and as far north as Auckland. In school plays I would always try to get a female role. I told some of my friends I felt I wasn't meant to be a boy.
I took up gymnastics after watching Olga Korbut at the Olympics. I never wanted to be like the women that I worshipped. I wanted to be them. Another was Suzanne Lynch from The Chicks.
Dave wanted to 'be' her. When I was 14, Mum found a box of my sister's clothes that I'd taken. My secret was out, but I put it from my mind. By 16 I was an alcoholic. A psychologist might say the drinking was because I was hiding stuff from myself, but I would say I was an alcoholic because I was an alcoholic. Shearing gangs are a good outfit for alkies, because you drink all the time.
We were pretty hard case. Every now and then I might crossdress and go to the pub for a laugh, but no one suspected, because I was too masculine. I was terribly homophobic. I got barred from a place once because a guy held my hand, so I whacked him. In those days I would have said I was attracted only to women. I had relationships with women; I lived with women. Having said that, I did have some homosexual encounters with school friends. God has impeccable timing.
There was a transgender person at Hanmer when I was there, and I summoned the courage to talk to her. She gave me the contacts so I could look into it.
After Hanmer I did a lot of work on myself; and realised I was living a lie. Simply cross-dressing wasn't an option. By the end of I was living full-time as a woman. I grew my own - a doctor prescribed me hormones. Everyone knew I was a bit different, especially before the hormones took hold and I had electrolysis. I was fortunate that I wasn't a very hairy person.
Living as a woman gave me a sense of freedom. It was a case of 'Right, I'm me now. We met when I was a guy, we started our romantic thing when I changed, and the relationship ended four or five years before I had the operation.
Now we're just good mates. I found out that the best surgery was done in Christchurch and set my heart on it. In the end it all happened within 12 months. I went down and met the psychologist and psychiatrist.
A few months later I went back down and met the surgeons, and I had the operation on my mother's birthday.