Transgender community mourns loss of Wellington bus driver Shelley Howard
NICHOLAS BOYACK Last updated 11:57, November 30 2017
When Shelley Howard stood in the street wearing a blindfold, she did so to send a message about life as a transgender person.
Howard died suddenly this week. Younger sister Kay Howard said she left a legacy that benefited everyone in the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, queer and transgender (LGBQT) communities.
That was achieved by being visible and making no apologies for her appearance.
"She stood out in the street with a blindfold on saying, 'I can't see you but if you can see me, give a hug'."
Howard, 63, boosted the confidence of others in her position and pushed the message that she was really no different from anyone else, her sister said.
It was not only the transgender community that she reached out to. After a career in the army, Howard came out as a woman in her late 50s and became a bus driver in Wellington.
She would greet passengers in Te Reo and also made the effort to greet Middle Eastern passengers in their own language.
When Wellington public transport operator Metlink posted on Twitter this week that Howard had died, the comments were all positive.
Marama Davidson spoke for many when she wrote:
"Shelley was amazing! She was a contribution to a better world and I am very sorry to hear of her passing. Haere atu ra e hoa."
Born in Hastings, Paul Howard always felt feminine despite playing rugby for Napier Boy's High School and living life as a boy.
After leaving school, Howard did a number of manual jobs, including scrub cutting and working as a deckhand on a trawler.
"I was a blokey boy growing up, but no matter how hard I tried the feminine side would continue to manifest with the constant fear of being found out," Howard told Stuff in a 2015 interview.
In 1975 she joined the army and in a 20-year career rose to rank of major. Howard married in 1981 and had three children.
The decision to live life as a woman was a big one, and Kay Howard said her sister confronted many difficulties.
Unlike many in her position, she chose to deal with challenges publicly.
When high-profile athlete Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner and used surgery to transform her appearance, Howard described it as a "mixed blessing". In reality, expensive surgery was not an option for most people in her position.
It frustrated her that the media concentrated on Jenner's "elegant femininity" rather than the hard realities faced by transgender people on a daily basis.
On another occasion she spoke out about the discrimination she faced in gyms over the issue of which toilet she should use.
Kay Howard said that having someone speak out was uplifting for the transgender community and the LGBQT community.
She is expecting a large turnout out from those communities at her sister's funeral on Thursday.
Close friend and OuterSpace board member Sara Fraser, who will be speaking at the funeral, said Howard would leave a "massive hole" in the Wellington LGBQT community.
"She would say, 'you are allowed to be who you are. It is society that needs to change'."
Helen Whitcombe was a flatmate and close friend of Howard for seven years, and said she was someone who enjoyed life but was prepared to stand up for her beliefs.
She had her favourite spots in Lower Hutt and was very particular about making sure her nails and hair were well presented.
She disliked labels, Whitcombe said. "She used to say, I am just Shelley."
* Shelley Howard's funeral is being held on Thursday, November 30, at 1.30pm at Gee and Hickton, Lower Hutt.