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Trans & Proud: Being Transgender in the Cook Islands

Supported by her loving family, Talia shares her story as a proud transwoman and what the recent decriminalization of homosexuality in the Cook Islands means for the future.

It’s a scene like many others around the world: a loving family pour over childhood photos, giggling and reminiscing about the memories. This particular scene takes place amongst the swaying palm trees and soft breeze rolling over the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, and the child they are cooing over – then named Nathanial – is now a beautiful transgender woman, Natalia.  

Born in New Zealand to Cook Islanders parents, 36-year-old Natalia (Talia) Lajpold, says she has always known she was female. Talia grew up in Australia and began her transitioning process at the age of 15. In the last year of her schooling, Talia decided to wear the girl’s uniform to school but was met with disapproval from the school authorities.  

“A lot of people think [being transgender] is a choice but if I had a choice, I would choose for things to be normal, the way I was born. Because it’s really hard. High school was hard,” Talia recalls.



Cook Islands



Related Member Association

Cook Islands Family Welfare Association

A lot of people think [being transgender] is a choice but if I had a choice, I would choose for things to be normal, the way I was born. Because it’s really hard. High school was hard.

Talia began her transitioning process at the age of 15.

Hannah Maule-ffinch / IPPF

Being bullied by her peers as well as facing disapproval from teachers made school the primary source of rejection Talia faced as a young transgender girl. Throughout her childhood, she was criticised for her personality, interests and behaviour for being ‘too feminine.’ 

“Tutors and teachers would express concern. All her friends are girls and they thought something was wrong with her. They knew what it was, but they just didn’t want to name it or acknowledge it. Interestingly, we took her to an Anglican counselling service and the counsellor admitted that there’s nothing wrong with her,” shared Talia’s mother, Carolyn. 

Despite the rejection Talia faced, she received immense love and support from her family and local LGBTQIA+ friendly organisations.  

“I want to be a girl,” Talia once said to her mom. She also decided to write a letter to her dad.  Although Talia was initially worried about her father’s response about her desire to transition, Talia’s father assured her of his unconditional love.

“You’re my child, why would I not support you? It doesn’t matter what you want to be, you just be yourself,” said Talia’s father, Jodef. 

When the school didn’t approve of her transitioning, Talia’s family transferred her to a beauty school, where she started working as a young woman. 

Now living in Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands, Talia receives services from IPPF’s Member Association, the Cook Islands Family Welfare Association (CIFWA), including a prescription for hormone replacement therapy. She has also recently undergone gender-affirming surgery in Bangkok. 

Since moving to the Cook Islands, Talia has seen immense support and acceptance towards the LGBTQIA+ community. Pride flags are on display throughout the island to endorse the recent decriminalization of homosexuality in April. Despite the Act never having never been applied, its symbolic nature meant that LGBTQIA+ people felt victimised and discriminated against as the law propagates a message of intolerance. 

The rainbow community are integral to Cook Island’s culture. Known as Akava'ine, transgender women in the Cook Islands’ Māori culture hold cultural and societal significance where they are upheld as holders of knowledge, culture, compositions, and choreography. Talia has embraced the word Akava’ine as inspiration for the name of her homemade jewellery line. 

Talia named her jewellery line Akava'ine, which means transgender woman

Hannah Maule-ffinch / IPPF

Valery Wichman, the President of Te Tiare Association (TTA), one of the three main rainbow associations in the Cook Islands credited with advocating for the passing of the bill, explained: “Culturally and socially, we are accepted. We contribute to our community. We are considered masters of an art. It is a privileged position to have in our culture.”  

Similarly, Dean Tangata, who is the Humanitarian Focal Point for CIFWA, added the significant role trans women have in the Cook Islands culture. According to Dean, “As soon as there is any event, the first people you seek out are the transgender community. You have to book them early as they are the costume makers. That's the position they hold in our cultural society - and it is a high status.” 

Talia’s parents say they often receive questions about their child’s transitioning process, and they emphasise the importance of education about gender fluidity and the need to normalize LGBTQIA+ people and cultures within our communities. Talia, like many others, believes that this bill is an important milestone in reaching a brighter and more inclusive future. 

Talia with her parents, Carolyn and Jodef

Hannah Maule-ffinch / IPPF