‘You Don’t Have To Understand Something In Order To Respect It’: One Woman’s Journey To Gender Transition Surgery

Dancer Aeyla Duncan is part of the Auckland Pride event Night of the Queer, but this year is a different experience – the performance will also be helping raise money for Aeyla’s gender transition surgery. Aeyla talks to Capsule about her journey to discover her gender identity, the growing risk to the trans community and why being trans is just one part of a person’s identity (and how her admittedly ‘weird’ phobia of chickens reflects this).

The start of many trans journeys, dancer Aeyla Duncan explains, are steeped in confusion. “It’s one of those things where you can feel something is not quite right, something is not quite fitting,” she says.

For many people – including Aeyla – that confusion can present itself as anxiety or depression. Growing up in a male body, Aeyla says, she “just knew that something was off, and I spent a lot of time trying to be able to figure that out.”

The initial turning point for Aeyla was figuring out her sexual identity, which then lead to a realisation of her gender identity. She realised she was attracted to men, but in a different way that a man would fall in love with another man. Slowly, she was able to pick through the layers of who she was, and the future she wanted for herself.

But there were parts of her life where it was safer to come out than others. “I was socially transitioning when I was away from home, but still covering up while I was at home,” she says, citing her relationship with her father as the main reason. “I knew that if I did transition while he was still within our lives, I would essentially be excommunicated.”

So that was the possible cost Aeyla was facing in her personal life, and then on the professional front, she was worried that the physical impact of transitioning would affect her career as a dancer. Like any athletic jobs, your body needs to be in peak physical condition in order to literally keep your day job – and the medical side of transitioning – firstly hormones, then surgery – take a lengthy toll.

Still, the possibility of a life post transition was worth the growing pains it would take to get there. “I had to look at myself 20, 30, 40 years down the track, and see what kind of a future I saw for myself if I stayed the way I was, or if I transitioned, what kind of future I would see then,” says Aeyla.

“And so [I made] the decision to go down the physical process of transitioning, to find more comfort within my body, was largely based on the fact that I could see myself living a happy life, transitioning to being socially accepted as a woman in society. I didn’t see a future if I stayed the way that I was.”

The Celebration Of Pride

The reason for Aeyla telling her story to Capsule is because her personal and professional lives have intersected again, thanks to the involvement of the creative team Luck & Schooney, who are behind the Auckland Pride event Night of The Queer. Luck & Schooney are a two-person team of director James Luck, who is also the Drag Queen Elektra Shock, from Dancing with the Stars and RuPaul Drag Race, and Rebekkah Schoonbeek, a dancer, choreographer and performer.

This week, Aeyla is one of the main dancers performing in Night of the Queer and as part of this week of performances, James and Rebekkah are helping fundraise for Aeyla’s gender reassignment surgery through a Give-A-Little campaign. “This will be a huge and emotional step for me and our entire team as we help Aeyla complete a journey that started with us back in 2015,” James says.

Aeyla had worked with James since before she started transitioning, and back in 2015, he was one of the first people she told.

“It was one of the greatest things that James could have done to help me, when I told him about it,” Aeyla recalls. “He gave me a hug, he told me that it was going to be okay and that he was going to be there to support me.”

James remembers how fearful Aeyla was that she would never work again as a dancer, after transitioning from male to female. “I assured her that she would always have a place in my company and that not only would she still have a career in dance, but I will be a passionate and loyal advocate for her success in the performing arts industry.”

Trans people have been under an increasingly toxic microscope as different public figures and political parties – both here in Aotearoa and globally – use the rainbow community as a target. One of the many false claims is that people are transitioning on a whim, without much thought. But listening to Aeyla describe the painstaking process it has taken her so far in order to access the hormone treatment and get on the decade-long waiting list for surgery in NZ, it is clear that this is a lengthy journey.

According to Te Whatu Ora, as of December last year there were 457 referrals on the active wait list for gender reassignment surgery, and only one surgeon in the whole country who can do the procedures. The average wait time is 10-12 years, which is a hell of a long time to wait, but it still only a fraction of the 40-50 year wait there was before that. It shows the sheer inaccuracy of the claim that people are transitioning without much thought – for many trans people, surgically transitioning has been a lifelong journey.

Aeyla says she feels lucky her own transition started in 2015, before the political discourse around the topic became as toxic as it has. On a personal level, she says she can definitely feel the shift in how trans people are treated in terms of fear and anger. She cites her own example of going out and starting to talk to a cisgender man, who was flirting with her and clearly wanted to take things further.

“I’m always open about the fact that I’m trans, when I was on dating apps it was always in my profile, because I wanted to keep myself safe,” she says. But that conversation can be harder in real life. In this case, when she told him that she was trans, he panicked and pushed her down a flight of stairs.

“It was almost like a gut reaction… I suppose my best understanding is that they possibly viewed it as an attack on their masculinity,” she says. “I was just trying to be honest, and keep myself safe – which is ironic, because trying to keep myself safe then put me in danger.”

This is why occasions like Auckland Pride – and events like Night of the Queer – are so important. Firstly, they provide a safe and celebratory place for queer and trans people to be around their community and have a great time while doing so.

James points out that there are over 20,000 rhinestones – “individually and painstakingly applied” – as part of the immersive cabaret experience, and hopefully every gender can agree that any event that includes 20,000 rhinestones is a green flag for a very good night. But also, events like this allow people outside of the rainbow community to follow their curiosity and find out more about this whole new world, in all its colourful, creative and joyous glory.

“Having spaces like this that celebrate this diversity and celebrate this uniqueness can help us work towards a world where people have a lot more love for other people, even if they don’t understand them,” says Aeyla.

James says that “fear of the unknown” plays a big part in the negative reactions that can exist towards the rainbow community, and Aeyla believes that people being curious, rather than judgemental can help reduce that fear. “Kindness is free, and it doesn’t take much,” she says.

“You don’t have to understand something to have respect for the fact that it might be a huge thing for somebody to be going through. I think somewhere along the way, we have lost sight of the fact that uniqueness can be beautiful.”  

Having allies in her life like James and Rebekkah, who are there to walk alongside the personal experience of transitioning while also helping her raise money is invaluable. “They are the most incredible people that I’ve ever known,” she says. “I will support everything they do, even outside of the queer spaces, because they have a lot of love to give to the performing arts and they have a lot of talent; they can create spaces and performances that everyone can enjoy.”

Finally, Aeyla wants to reiterate that for trans people, being transgender is just one of many details about who they are as a person. “People go beyond any type of preconceived notion, or go beyond simply one aspect of their lives,” she says. “Yes, I’m trans, but I’m also a dancer. I also like to read, and I also have a phobia of chickens, which is really weird.”

What’s that now? “Well, at the end of the day they are little dinosaurs,” she laughs. “And honestly, it’s such a random thing to be afraid of but again, it just goes to show that I’m more than the fact that I’m trans. I have so many other things, so many random fears. And we all have things that we are afraid of, that we don’t understand, and we can all relate to the world on the level that we all have our unique experiences.”

Night of the Queer is part of Auckland Pride month, for more information please click here

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