Wannabe MP's gender change 'humbling'

17:00, Apr 05 2014
Kelly Ellis
KELLY ELLIS: 'My masculinity slipped like fine sand through drunken fingers.'

As a bloke, wannabe MP Kelly Ellis was as rugged as they come. Now she is appealing to the Whangarei electorate to embrace her softer side - as a woman.

It's a familiar refrain: Kelly Ellis believes her marriage would have failed if she hadn't made changes to her life.

"I am sure my partner would have left me," she says. "I was an arrogant fella who was out yacht racing and drinking four, five nights a week if I could. I was ready to have a battle with anyone."

Dave and Kelly Ellis
NOT BOTHERED: Dave Ellis says his father's gender reassignment was the casting off of a facade.

Kelly Ellis's change was more dramatic than most; she was formerly Sean Ellis and credits her gender reassignment for revealing a humbler, more empathetic side. And it's this change that has this former teenage runaway, sheep-shearer, motorbike journalist, champion angler, yachtsman, criminal lawyer and pig farmer pursuing a place in Parliament.

Even putting aside that she was once a man and is now a woman, hers could be the most remarkable backstory of any would-be MP.

Asked last month if he knew the whole tale, Labour leader David Cunliffe intoned: "A lot of our candidates have dirt under their fingernails." That's rather a simplification given that before the age of 18, Ellis had lived in an orphanage, on a beach, in a commune and with drug addicts, was expelled from school and worked on a car-assembly line.


To add Labour MP to her bulging CV, Ellis must overturn retiring National incumbent Phil Heatley's "piffling" 12,000 majority in a seat last held by Labour in 1972. A national swing to Labour, her active pursuit of young voters, and a potential split in the grey vote should Winston Peters make good on a threat to stand as constituency MP could, she argues, deliver her the seat. It may seem unlikely.

"People have said I've no show here," says Ellis nonchalantly. "But people have said I had no show with lots of things."

Best to begin not at the point at which Sean became Kelly but much earlier, at the Home of Compassion orphanage, Wellington, in the early 1960s. "I remember seeing kids hanging off the hurricane wire fence on Saturday and Sunday week after week, month after month, and nobody ever came for them," says Ellis. "But they still hung there . . . they still had hope."

Ellis was left there by her mother between the ages of three and five. "I have very clear memories. Some things are etched to my synapses forever. Undoubtedly it did some damage. It taught me some self-reliance. One of the things I learned is if I close my eyes, I can go off into a world of infinite imagination and find all those things I dreamed of."

Her dreams were a home, a job, someone to love and a black Honda 750 motorbike. It took time for her to realise how to get there. When she left the home, she was a wild, unsocialised child who smoked and could cook and wanted to live on the beach and "cook anything that moved".

Thanks to an alcoholic stepfather and struggling mother, she spent time dodging school and living with hippies. She didn't know who her father was until she was 12 and didn't meet him until she was 14, but says both he and her surviving, final, stepfather are good men. Eventually asked to leave Wellington's Onslow College, she was flatting with junkies at 16. "I got through my childhood; I won't say just fine, but I got through and I kept my eyes on the things I hoped for."

She worked at General Motors, a shoe warehouse and a car-detailing company, punctuated by stints "in the bush" with the hippies and in Auckland, before studying School Certificate at night school. And so, in 1980, she was able to enrol in Wellington Polytech's journalism course, graduating alongside Mark Sainsbury, Metro's Steve Braunias (who says Ellis was "cheerful, a nice person, an outsider") and the Herald's Fran O'Sullivan, and got a job at the Taihape Times. From there, she specialised in motorbike journalism, before heading to law school and a career as a criminal barrister.

Ellis compares her experience of finally coming good to the travails of her youngest son, Dave, "a barista, painter's labourer and bloody good lawn mower" (who was, however, sacked from the Farmer's catalogue for suggesting the clothes were shit).

"Even though I thought I had it tough as a youngster, there were doors I could knock on and things I could do and they are not available to the youngsters of Whangarei," she says. "You'd think it would be enough if you worked hard, had a good attitude, did as you were told."

So because he's currently jobless, Dave, an enthusiastic 19-year-old with an emo haircut and a crumpled suit, is heading the Ellis caravan. She needs him, managing three diaries and trying to work, she seems a touch flustered.

Dave, however, is serene. Cheerfully, he says he's not bothered by his father's gender reassignment, and says while he originally kept it quiet at school, experienced no teasing. It made sense, he says, it was Kelly "casting off the facade".

He's on driving duties when we meet. Ellis is enveloped in the first wave of fluff candidates must both endure and be seen to enjoy, so our interview straddles a visit to a Niwa research centre at Ruakaka, on the rugged coast south of Whangarei.

There's a long, very long powhiri in a room decorated by a giant plastic kingfish, in which Shane Jones smiles beneficently and Cunliffe nods along, and even, at one stage, sways. It's Ellis's first meeting with the leader.

"Kelly is a very bright woman who is committed to work hard for the interests of the people of Whangarei," he tells the Star-Times. To those who wish to make a fuss about her background, "get over yourselves". No, he doesn't expect any dirty tricks.

Ellis emerges smiling, and as a keen angler, seems to have genuinely liked it. After our next chat and some photos, she's off to see primary school teachers with Chris Hipkins.

On policy, she seems particularly leftist: she argues for the redistribution of wealth, government support of industry and job creation and against the "bailing out of all those fat cats who put their money into South Canterbury Finance". But Ellis admits she was a lapsed Labour member when the idea first arose to stand for Parliament. This isn't, she emphasises, the selfish, solitary ambition Sean Ellis would have pursued.

A group of liberally-minded Whangarei criminal lawyers met, considered what they might do to make the town better, and agreed one of their number should run for Parliament. Ellis was suggested. "We'd all like to do ourselves out of a job," she says. "That would mean a better and safer town for our kids."

Now, she says, she's merely part of a tight campaign team working for her election.

Politics, strangely, will be something of a release from the misery which confronts her in her day job, where she mainly defends accused sex offenders on legal aid. Until last year, her herd of pigs fulfilled a role as confessors. "They were always willing to listen," she says. "Sometimes they would give a contemptuous snort when I became a little self-indulgent. But you can't expect entirely professional counselling from swine." She cried when she sold them.

Ellis refuses several of our photographer's suggestions for poses, saying they will reinforce stereotypical images of transgender people. And she reckons that the voters of Whangarei are "over" her sex change.

"My cats don't care, my partner doesn't care, my kids don't care, the judges don't care, the clients don't care - who the hell does care?" She becomes theatrical. "If they do, where's a rock, I'll give it to them. Stone me! Stone me!"

She charts the start of her "slow, incremental" journey from man to woman to the sale of her Holden Monaro and its replacement with a less blokey Peugeot. She also got rid of her gun collection and the camouflage pants: "My masculinity slipped like fine sand through drunken fingers."

She considers herself, and says: "I didn't think I would look this feminine. I thought I would be some strange androgynous fruit of the South Seas. I never anticipated being a middle-aged blonde matron."

But then she begins to explain it more in terms of character than physicality. She talks about how initially, when she was still wearing a suit but taking hormones and "looked rather queer" she would strive to avoid conflict, a strategy that one day left her eating her lunch in the rain outside a Hamilton courtroom because the lawyers inside had been rude to her.

She considered emigrating somewhere more liberal. Instead she set up an advocacy group TransAdvocates, which also pursued marriage equality because "I felt railroaded out of my marriage by the legislation."

Ellis, originally named Sean Kelly Ellis, has since remarried her former wife, confusingly also called Kelly but at home she's K1 and her wife is Kel.

Ellis says she had toyed with all this when she was a 15-year-old, "hanging around Carmen's coffee lounge, desperately trying to get into trouble - I never did get into trouble I was well looked after".

She said the career options then for a transgender person were sex work or exotic dancing; she didn't want to sleep with men and wasn't much of a dancer.

The options are, of course, much better now. She nods to the trailblazing of the first transgender MP, Georgina Beyer, but what has intrigued Ellis most has been the loss of her white male privilege - something she didn't believe in until it was gone. "It's the freedom from the prejudice that everyone else gets for being a woman, brown, trans, gay, disabled.

"It was the most humbling experience an arrogant lawyer could possibly have, to feel this stripping away of privilege. I won't say I know what it's like to be disabled or a racial minority, but I sure know what it's like to experience prejudice and I'd never experienced it before."

That, however, has been a good thing. "It has made me an easier person to get on with, that's for sure. My wife says if she'd known it would be like this, she would have put oestrogen on my cornflakes years ago."

Sunday Star Times