Roberts really does have some stories to tell. Youâd be best to read the book yourself, but in her 72 rich years sheâs knocked down barriers countless times. After a rough childhood, in 1969 she was the first New Zealander to undergo full gender reassignment surgery. Getting her birth certificate changed, she broke legal ground across the Commonwealth.
But it was a painful ride through surgical experimentation, during which Roberts, in a life punctuated by some memorable characters and the heady world of high fashion, somehow kept her forthrightness, humour and heart in the face of strange reproach, prison time and agony.
Roberts had already started writing her life story some years ago. âI sent it away to be proof read and when it came back it was so sanitised, I just threw it out,â she tells GayNZ.com.
Enter broadcaster and journalist Ali Mau. The pair first had contact in July 2012, after Mau was on TVNZâs Close Up arguing for marriage equality. Roberts called TVNZ the next day to say she thought Mau had done a good job.
âWe started chatting during that first phone call, and within half an hour I knew I wanted to write her book. I was stunned that no-one had already stumbled across it, to be honest,â Mau says.
âWe met, she came to my 70th birthday actually, and started chatting,â Roberts recalls of the next step. âThen we spent two years on this book, and here we are now.â
Roberts just laid it all out, telling Mau everything and giving her access to paperwork and people. âIt wasnât chronologically. One thing would just lead to another and I would go and find documents and bits and pieces. It was never really â4,6,8â or anything like that. I didnât want it to read like that either. I just wanted to sound as though I was telling the person the story, and I think sheâs done quite a good job there.â
She shed a few tears reading the final result. âI had a lump in my throat a few times.â
When itâs pointed out she has been through a lot, she says looking back she supposes she has. âBut at the time you just donât think about it. You just keep going on donât you?â
Roberts is frank â the multiple surgeries she had were âhellâ. Not all of them, but one in particular in Auckland at National Womenâs was horrendous. âNot just the surgery, but the behaviour of the nurses, was unbelievable. It was the early 70s and when I think back I should not be surprised. But it was a horrendous amount of cutting and dicing and slicing and god knows what. And then having to live with glass dilators and things inside me and stitched up with packing inside, it was hideous.
âI never, ever, ever told anybody really. I thought âIâve done this I canât complain about itâ. But I did go through a lot of trauma really.â
It was a long way before the days of media darlings like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox. Transgender awareness would have been almost nil. Roberts tries not think back too much though. And she doesnât things have actually changed too much in many areas of the community. âThereâs still the bitchiness and the nastiness that goes on. I have only got a couple of friends who are gay. I just prefer to live getting on with my work and my other friends.â
Sheâs hesitant to give advice or recommendations to people about surgery, saying sheâs not in a position to do so â and what right for her might not necessarily be right for somebody else. She is clear on one thing though - itâs not a piece of cake. âAnd if it is a piece of cake, theyâre lucky to be that rich.â
Roberts laughs as she adds, âItâs still the luck of the draw. Like people who go overseas to have a facelift and come back with one side up and one side down.â
âIn our many hours of interviews, even when we were going over the most painful of memories, she could make me laugh.â
She also admires Robertsâ ability to accept what lifeâs handed her, and says she never set out to push any boundaries, or make history.
âShe simply knew what she needed to live her life fully from the time she was quite small, and she went out and got it, which I think is admirable.â
Mau says the fact that so much time passed between her original surgery and the change of birth certificate, and the later court action, meant her story wasnât really picked up on.
âNevertheless, you canât discount the ground she broke. She was absolutely dogged in her efforts to find doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists and surgeons who would agree to help her, and most of those had never even considered such a path before. The fact that she was able to track down enlightened professionals, from her psychiatrist John Dobson in the 1960s, to the wonderful surgeon Peter Walker in the 90s, shows that anythingâs possible.â
Mau Robertsâ life has given her an insight into how badly we treated people in the past, and the obstacles gay and trans people faced just to get by day to day.
Her stoicism through so many years of surgery is what stands out the most. âAlso her escape from New Zealand, the extraordinary journey to England by sea and the fun she obviously had in London in the swinging sixties. That part of the book has the most outrageous characters!â
Mau believes itâs vital to be telling Liz Robertsâ story right now.
âWeâve been working on this book together for three years, and during that time trans issues have become more and more visible in mainstream culture. I think itâs a fortunate stroke of coincidental timing for this book, considering how long itâs been in the pipeline, that this is something of a hot topic in 2015.
âLiz does not claim to provide any kind of blueprint for young trans people these days â far from it. She is actually very old-school; a Christchurch lady. But even if her experience is significantly different from someone facing this path now, itâs important to understand the history. Until now we have had to look overseas for stories of transgender people growing up in the 20th century. Now we have a New Zealand story. I think thatâs really important.â
Mau would like anyone who has ever wished they understood the trans experience a little better to read First Lady. âIt certainly does not describe everyoneâs experience, but it is one great example of a Kiwi brave enough to push the boundaries like never before.â
She recently had feedback from a reviewer who said they had not expected the book to be such an approachable, enjoyable read.
âHe was unsure the subject matter âwas for himâ but found when he started the book that he couldnât put it down. He described it as âa story of the human spiritâ. Thatâs true I think; Lizâs surgery and her struggle to live as woman is only part of a glorious, messy, glamorous, triumphant life story. Thereâs plenty in there for everyone.â
Roberts lives a quiet life in Christchurch these days. In fact she says really, she always has led a quiet life.
âIâm quite happy with my work and my friends and my books and my dogs. I donât need to go around screaming away.â
She jokes she is planning to make a yashmak so she can still go out in her city without being recognised after the bookâs publicity.
Roberts doesnât feel like a pioneer. âI feel like an old fossil,â she laughs. âBut look, I was the first legalised person in the Commonwealth and in New Zealand to have all my legality changed. And that was back in the 60s when everything was frowned upon. I got arrested so many times leaving my salon on a Saturday night dressed as woman, god, up to the police station, take my wig off, look up my dress âŚ that went on for years and years. So I guess I have been a bit of a trailblazer.â
Her overall hope is that people who read the book just see it hasnât been a bed of roses. âIâm not complaining. I donât regret any part of it. And thereâs no reason to. But if it just helps one person see there are pitfalls, then I guess it helps.â