For most of his life, Peter Hassall has been an adventurer.
Peter's film, theatre and TV stunt career spans roles on dozens of productions including the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. He's performed hundreds of live sword-fights and fire stunts and even choreographed fight scenes in the NZ Ballet's Romeo and Juliet. He's also a published writer, covering violence in films and investigating UFO claims.
All that, without giving up his day job: Peter is also an IT guru who, for the last five years, has been a change analyst at ANZ's Wellington office.
And recently, he's taken the bravest jump in his life. After over fifty years living full-time as a man, happily married with an adult son - Peter is finally starting to express his transgender preferences, something he's wanted to do for most of his life.
Don't die wondering
In mid 2014, Peter was rocked by the deaths of two friends aged, like him, in their early fifties.
“You don't think of people dying in their fifties so much, and it played heavily on me; what if I died in the next week, or month, or year? I thought about what I'd regret."
Peter says when he got into martial arts and 'macho' stunt work as a teenager, it was partly so nobody would suspect he was transgender.
“I have known I was trans since about the age of 8 – and I'm now 56," he says. “Apart from a few brief periods in my life, I had hidden my true self from everyone I knew for more than 45 years."
Peter had been aware, since starting work at ANZ, that the company embraced diversity and strongly supported its LGBTI employees, with in-house publications celebrating employee's achievements and their differences.
“I often see articles and profiles about the people I work with. It is a very clear company policy, that people can be themselves at work and won't be harassed for it."
This acceptance in his workplace had been back-of-mind for years … then, following the deaths of his friends, Peter realised it was time to do something about it.
“I went to my manager at the time and asked to talk to her privately. I was so nervous, my hands were literally shaking."
After years of stunt work, he doesn't scare easily. “It takes a lot for me to be that nervous. I was just about in tears, because it was such a big thing."
To his relief, his manager was very accepting. The pair created a timeline together of the steps to take: Who would be told? How, and when? When would Peter change what he wears to work? Peter put together an 'FAQ' to help his co-workers understand.
Questions included: Are you changing your name? Your pronoun? “No!"
Does this mean you are gay? “No. Gender identification with the opposite sex does not automatically mean someone is gay. Some trans men are straight, some are bi and some are gay. I am not interested in male co-workers. I am also not interested in female co-workers as I am happily married and monogamous."
Peter says that the FAQ saved him answering the same questions all the time, though he found he didn't mind talking to people about it.
“I had some good feedback. People told me their teams found it helpful, and informally, people would say, do you mind if I ask … to clear up things they wondered about. I'm fine with it."
He's now helping on a document to help with information for any future staff who want to transition and want to come out at work.
It had been more than twenty years since Peter had been able to express the female part of his life. At one stage, he went to a few support group meetings and had met some people he could be himself with.
“I dropped out of all that and buried things again, when I began my second marriage. My wife never knew. I thought if she did, she wouldn't want to be with me," he said.
Although he remembers that he always felt different, growing up in New Zealand in pre-internet days, there was no information about the gender dysphoria he experienced.
“I feel most comfortable being myself at work."
In his late teens, Peter became so depressed he was suicidal. He got help from the counselling service Youthline, and for a while he visited gay clubs in Auckland.
“They were safe places for me to be who I wanted to be at the time, without judgement or fear of being attacked," he says.
Peter recalls another safe outlet: attending regular 'participation' performances of the classic 1975 movie, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which screened at one Auckland cinema each Friday and Saturday night for over ten years.
“I'd go fairly often with groups of people, and that was about the only situation where it was acceptable to dress like that. Up until 1986 in New Zealand, it was illegal to be gay, and any man dressed as a woman could be charged with inciting public disorder."
Coming out now has been mostly a huge relief. “It has been hard for my wife and 23 year old son to cope with but we are doing well now."
He's still involved in stunt work, and watches action movies with his son. “I haven't changed any of my interests, I'm still the same person."
And one of his greatest fears - that his career would suffer - has actually been the reverse of what he expected. “I feel most comfortable being myself at work," he says.
Being yourself at work
“At work, I guess I wear what would be considered women's clothing," Peter says. “But because of my age, I know I can only go so far. But back when I was a teenager, if there had been money and opportunity, I would have gone through the complete process."
But in 1970s and 1980s New Zealand, gender reassignment surgery was a drastic step. “All transgender woman worked as prostitutes or strippers and it meant a complete rift with friends and family. Now, people are a lot more accepting," he says.
Gender reassignment surgery in NZ is also hugely expensive and subsidised surgery has a fifty-year waitlist, he adds.
“It's very sad, the teenage suicide rate in New Zealand is the worst in the world, and for LGTBI teenagers it's 4 to 6 times higher than for non LGTBI teenagers," he says.
He believes many others are in similar situations to himself. “I've been taking things slowly. Because hormone treatments and surgery are expensive and hard to access or not what everybody wants to do, many people won't 'pass' or look completely convincing as who they feel they really are inside," he says.
“I think it's important people are aware of that, and can accept people who are trying to be the best they can - which is the situation I'm in."
Peter says he's come to this stage too late in life to look at surgery. He's taking 'baby steps' to work out what transgender means to him. He's wistful though, that he's missed the opportunities available to trans teenagers today: hormone blockers, greater family and public acceptance and a life lived openly.
The importance of acceptance
Peter says that his workplace has been completely accepting and supportive. “That's blown me away a bit; I didn't expect anyone to say anything or be outright nasty, or blatantly discriminate. But people might have been professional while staying quite distant – I've not even had any of that," he says.
“When we first announced it, I was expecting a deafening silence – instead I got a lot of nice comments from people and supportive emails. Even sometimes, I get compliments from people at something I'm wearing, which helps me feel better and more confident."
He's been given gifts of clothing by women he works with – a necklace, several scarves – even a pair of calf-high boots with heels from a friend at work who said she doesn't really wear them anymore. “Talk about helpful!"
Peter says that while he's entirely comfortable at work, he's less relaxed getting to and from work or popping out for lunch and is aware that there has been violence against trangender and gay people in the past.
“I'm always just a little bit on guard, out in public," he admits – though, he laughs, with thirty years of martial arts and fight scene training, if he did get attacked, he's probably better equipped than most to defend himself. “If I did lose, I'd make it look good!"
“Being able to be myself at work means I can focus 100% on my job," he says. “It has also sometimes provided a talking point that helps me relate better with other staff."
Writer: Fran Molloy
Photography: Mark Coote