Transphobia in New Zealand is Making the Shift From Online to Real Life

TERFs in NZ are feeling more empowered to act on their hate publicly, and Shaneel Lal's book has brought them out of hiding. 
Nic Staveley x Shaneel Lal 

There was a time when transphobia felt out of place in Aotearoa – part of a colloquial habit to throw America under the bus and think of our nation as one where “stuff like that doesn’t happen.” Unfortunately, that just isn’t the truth. And Shaneel Lal knows it better than most of us. 

Shaneel Lal (they/them) is a law student in Tāmaki Makaurau, a front-line leader for queer people, and, in their own words, “a bit of an agitator.” At 23-years-old, they’ve already made history as the first transgender person to win the Young New Zealander of the Year award – and they are also the founder of the Conversion Therapy Action Group (CTAG), which brought an end to the until-recently-legal process of conversion therapy in Aotearoa in 2022.


Lal’s drive for change is well rooted in lived experience. Born in Fiji in 2000, their life as a queer kid was shaped by the traditional islander community. As their identity became clearer, conservative elders pushed them to enter into conversion therapy to rid them of the “demon” that was their feminine expression. And Lal didn’t know that living with their queerness was an option. 

“One of the reasons I went into conversion therapy is because I did not see any representation of happy queer adults,” Lal told VICE. “I did not see myself represented in this world, so I could not imagine a future with me in it.” 

Conversion therapy under the command of elders was a traumatic experience built on exorcisms, prayers and beatings – but even as a self-confessed “weak child”, Lal made it through the torturous process without losing themself. 

They moved to Aoteaora, embraced their queerness, and now sit on the board of RainbowYOUTH and Auckland Pride Festival, as well as being a trustee of Adhikaar Aotearoa, a non-profit that provides education, support and advocacy for queer South Asians, and work with countless causes that support queer people. If anyone is the epitome of the “getting it done” mentality, it’s Lal.

In July, they also released their first book.



One of Them, Lal’s memoir, details their experiences with conversion therapy and their life since. Lal said that writing the book was “one of the most incredible experiences,” but also something steeped in anguish. 

“I told myself that I would never look back into my life after escaping conversion therapy. So when I wrote this book, I had to walk through my life and feel every emotion again, and it was traumatising,” they said. “But at the same time, it has triggered a journey of healing.”

But One Of Them has shaken the nation in ways Lal never intended, highlighting an unpleasant truth in Aotearoa in the process. 

Book store displays are being targeted, pages are being ripped out, cards containing transphobic rhetoric are being slotted insidiously under the covers, and a raging minority are calling for Lal’s deportation. “I have not had a single moment of peace since launching my book,” said Lal.

“My community was incredibly supportive, but it changed a few hours later. Anti-trans groups entertained the idea of hiding my book in stores. I thought it was a silly joke until I woke up the next day and saw pictures of people going into stores and hiding my books. They called it ‘Conceal Shaneel’. The next day, they escalated from ‘Conceal Shaneel’ to ‘Rip Shaneel’, now ripping pages from my book, in stores. What started as a campaign to hide my books soon turned into a conversation between more than 1500 people on whether I should be deported.” 


Online, platforms like Twitter were utilised by New Zealanders in order to organise these actions – but the reaction to One Of Them makes it clear that keyboard warriors are feeling more empowered to step away from the computer – a frightening reality for trans people living in Aotearoa. 

“It was a conversation started on Twitter, but people are in-person – and going to bookstores – and hiding my books or ripping the pages from my book. So what if they encountered me in public?” said Lal. “There's always safety risks.” 


So how has Aotearoa – a country that loves to proudly declare itself as one of the best and safest countries in the world, despite the recent anti-vax movement, anti-queer hatred and gun violence– became home to transphobic behaviour in real life? Transphobia clearly exists within our own whenua – and people are actively participating in hate crimes across NZ.  

For queer people, who are subjected to daily aggressions, it’s not something that can be ignored. For everyone else, Lal believes New Zealanders have become “a little bit complacent to the poor treatment of queer people” because “to a certain extent it’s just expected.”

“You'd think that our country was moving in the right direction, because we had the homosexual law reform. We identify with our civil unions, we allowed transgender people to identify as transgender, we allowed same-sex marriage, we banned conversion therapy. So in terms of legislation we have done well, the laws are changing, but the culture seems to be stagnant.”


“And now the culture seems to be regressing since we've been infiltrated by anti trans influences from the UK.” 


Although the term “TERF” was created to distinguish between feminists who believe trans women aren’t women, and feminists who understand that they are, it has evolved from its original definition and is no longer attached to it’s original feminist ideology. And our favourite friend, the internet, has enabled TERF rhetoric to be shared, amplified and proudly supported, which makes the online crowd seem insanely loud and their message pervasive.  

“One of the reasons why the anti-trans movement feels as though they are dominating the conversation is because they are,” said Lal. “They speak up every single day. And they put out anti-trans content every single day. So it feels as though they are the majority in this conversation. Whereas people who consider themselves allies to transgender people say, yes, I support transgender people and I'm just going to go on about my life. And that's a great idea to have, if transgender people were not being attacked.” 

And the idea that transphobic people are a vast minority isn’t just conjecture. A recent study from market research company Ipsos showed that 84% of New Zealanders believe that transgender people should be protected from discrimination. In early 2023, this support manifested itself in the form of the counter-protests to outspoken anti-trans speaker Posie Parker’s attempted anti-trans rallies in Auckland and Wellington. Ultimately, Parker was forced to flee the country after the protests to her speaking events were hugely outnumbered by people showing up in support of trans rights. 


“I've never seen New Zealanders come together like this to support transgender people. I think that event communicated to a lot of transgender people that a majority of New Zealanders are on the side of trans people. It is just that they happened to be painfully quiet,” said Lal. 

“The way that trans people are being treated now is precisely how gay men were treated, how women were treated, how people of colour were treated. History is repeating itself and, unfortunately, many people are just allowing it to happen. That’s why the idea of solidarity between all marginalised people is so important.”  


The transphobia in Aotearoa is no longer hidden. So what can be done to prevent it from dominating in our culture? 

For the TERFs themselves, Lal has a simple solution: “I always say get to know a transgender person before you decide to hate one. Because the number of people who have decided that actually, I'm not evil, and that I’m not trying to destroy the lives of their children after they've met me is incredible.” 

But more important than the shouty minority causing a rift in New Zealand are the queer kids and people whose lives are in danger because of it. And for them, the life led by Shaneel Lal speaks for itself. 

“When you open my book, one of the first lines you read is, for all the queer people fighting to live another day, never give up? And I think that that is the point. I do hope that queer people realise that regardless of what they are going through, there is hope that it is worth sticking around.” Said Lal. 


“I always love when parents read my books, because they probably have the most heightened emotional reaction. Most of the times that parents message me it's because they were crying and they couldn't get through the book. And I've been like: "If it's any consolation, I do make it.”

One Of Them is available at bookstores across Aotearoa. 

Rachel Barker is a writer / producer at VICE NZ in Aotearoa. You can find her @rachellydiab on IG and Letterboxd and see her film criticism on Youtube