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March 8, 2015 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Georgina Beyer

In 1995 New Zealand made the record books, electing the world’s first openly transsexual mayor. Five years later that mayor set another record, becoming a Member of Parliament. From boy, to girl, to prostitute, to drag queen, to actress, to community worker—Georgina Beyer didn’t exactly follow the typical evolutionary process of a politician. Yet, within four years of moving to Carterton in Wellington’s rural hinterland, she was elected Mayor. Within another four years, as a Labour candidate, she beat out Paul Henry in a safe National seat to become Wairarapa’s local MP.

Rebelling against expectation is something that has underpinned much of Georgina Beyer’s life.

“I would say my rebelliousness probably started when I was a child—not that I would have known it then—when despite discipline, violent discipline sometimes, because I wanted to put on a frock and mince around the house, and be you know, natural, there’d be bloody thrashings and hidings and that sort of thing.”

And so she began to do it subversively, in secret. “Don’t ask me why I was compelled to do this, but there was a compulsion there that I certainly didn’t understand or could explain until I was older, and understood about the birds and the bees.” At school, suppressing her differences in order to fit in and avoid bullying—the likes of “ah ya fucking poofter”, she recalls—felt totally wrong. She found solace in the drama department, something she turned out to be quite good at. “I found it a great outlet, because you could be another person, another character. And quite often if you were doing period dramas, men would get to wear costumes that were like dresses and put makeup on, and things like that.”

At 16, George began transitioning to Georgina. In hindsight, she says, “I hadn’t lived enough life yet to realise the ramifications of the life choice I was making at the time”—though she doesn’t consider being a transsexual as a choice. Leaving school early, this period of transitioning saw her “cracking it as a prostitute in Wellington, doing strip clubs and all of that. I didn’t want to do it, I hated it. I didn’t enjoy it at all.” She saw an out by way of the dole, but got turned down—“‘Oh no you can’t, we can’t put you on the unemployment benefit—you’ll have to be the man that you are and go and get a job.’”

This saw her first rebellion against “the establishment” that she would later join. “I drew a line in the sand and said ‘excuse me, no. I’m Georgina Beyer, I’m a transsexual, this is what I am. And in order to get work I’m not going to go and do what you want me to do.’ What difference does it make if I have a frock or trousers on? ‘Oh we’ll have to have toilets in special places!’ All of it, it was rubbish what would pour out of people as a reason not to give me a chance. And I really objected to that.”

A stint in Australia involved some terrible experiences, with post-traumatic disorder nearly sending her to suicide. She reflected a lot on the human rights element to it—why she didn’t get help, why the law wouldn’t have protected or supported her in any way. It angered her a lot. “Here I was, a relatively well-educated intelligent person, having to reconcile that the rest of my life was meant to be spent as some sort of street… and that I was never going to be able to reach my potential.”

She wanted to remove herself from the street scene, and to have what she saw as the ordinary things everybody else took for granted, such as dignity in work. This saw her once again seek solace in performing, joining a drag show in Auckland which led to work as an actress in film and television. She considered it a personal triumph to be nominated in a national best actress award category. “To me, that was a little win, it did heaps for my self-esteem. After some pretty bad 10 years or so of great upheaval in my life, to start to feel like I can pursue things that I enjoy, and be respected for it, was great… After the nomination, I thought ‘oh well Hollywood, here I come, but no…’”

Disappointingly, Carterton proved to be the scene of the next chapter in Beyer’s life. Rural New Zealand was a big change from the glamorous cabaret life of Auckland, the result of house-sitting going on too long rather than a particularly strategic decision. Beyer benefited from a government-funded training scheme at the community centre, after which she was offered a job as a drama tutor. “I liked [Carterton], I didn’t think I would as I’d had a pretty racy life in the previous decade and a half, suddenly to find myself in quiet rural New Zealand was a surprise to me, but I enjoyed it.”

The community was a little standoffish to begin with, but were eventually welcoming. “They certainly knew that something odd had arrived in town. But you know, what I found is that rural folk, conservative folk, will spot a fake at 50 paces… So it’s no use telling them some bullshit story about your life because you’re a stranger in town, they all knew that I was a bit ‘queer’.” She found the residents didn’t worry so much about the moral issues surrounding her, putting it aside and giving her a chance to prove herself. “To eventually be welcomed by the community, and then embraced by them, and then trusted by them… that was a huge attitudinal change that happened quietly and subtly, without any great hullabaloo.”

Her interest in local body politics (yes, it is possible) came in the aftermath of National Party Finance Minister Ruth Richardson’s “mother of all budgets” in the early 90’s. “Ruthanasia”, as Beyer describes it, cut benefits by about 25 per cent. “Within a few months we started to see the ramifications. We even had a few homeless people in and around Carterton, which was unheard of.” Beyer and her comrades from the community centre tried to do something to alleviate the situation, but the Council wouldn’t assist, claiming social housing was central government’s responsibility. “I was pushed upfront to be the mouthpiece, I suppose colleagues thought I held myself quite well in that. Then when the 1992 elections came along they persuaded me to stand for council—so I ran on a ticket with a retired vicar!”

Politics hadn’t really entered Beyer’s mind before she was encouraged to get involved. “Most of my life I’d sort of fought it, because it was ‘the establishment’, which gave me and people like me a huge amount of grief in our lives.” She sucummed to peer-pressure “because I’ve always been one to sort of go ‘well if they can do it, so can I!’, and have a go. I didn’t let my ‘colourful past’ be a barrier to my pursuing things, and this was something new and different to me, and I seemed to have an aptitude for it.”

Though she lost by 14 votes, a by-election held very soon after saw her elected to Council. “That was my opportunity to prove myself worthy, not only to myself, but to them. And of course I thrived in it. I thrived in the whole thing, and so when it came time that someone suggested I have a go at becoming the mayoralty, I said you’ve got to be kidding. A Councillor is one thing, but to be the Mayor is another. And again, I was still thinking that my background and my past was going to always count against me. And sometimes it did, but it was me who actually had more of an issue about it than other people.”

The decision to hold a by-election rather than co-opting Beyer riled up debate within the quiet town. “The media loved it, they were making insinuations that it was to do with my sexuality and all of that sort of stuff. And I was very politically going ‘of course it’s not, they’re not like that’—yeah right! Of course that’s what a lot of it was about, apprehension about ‘a person like me’.”

The media attention around her identity followed her to central government, where she became the world’s first transsexual member of parliament. “The first out transsexual,” she notes, “because who’s to say there haven’t been others? When I was first told, I expected it to have been done before—Margaret Thatcher? I mean who knows!”

Beyer attributes an “unhealthy curiosity factor” that would generate most media reporting on her, a problem that saw her frequently pigeon-holed, stereotyped and type-cast—both in life, and in politics. “People have formed a view of you already, because they think they know everything there is to know about you. And I noticed through most of my political career, a lot of talk about my ‘colourful past’, and now I’m in politics? ‘How on earth does this happen?’… yet they very rarely looked at the work that I actually did, or what I actually achieved.”

Indeed, her Wikipedia tells a story of a political record consisting solely of the presence of an identity, with viewpoints limited to gender and queer discourse. “I don’t know if the media ever reconciled how I could have a 15-year-odd span in politics at both local and central government, and what—like I didn’t do anything all that time in order to be there that long?”

“That used to frustrate me a lot. They’d ask you questions like ‘what is your legacy?’, ‘what have you achieved?’, almost accusatory like you’ve achieved nothing. And I’d sit there and rattle off what we did, and they’d go ‘oh, we didn’t know about that’—oh, because you were too busy with your head in my pants, rather than in my head.”

Does she find it frustrating having her record diminished to just the symbolic nature of what she achieved? “No, not really. Because I think I’m lucky to be acknowledged at all. I think I’m avoided sometimes in our historical statistics.”

Statistics, in itself, is still struggling to fully represent gender identities. The last official Census in 2013 remained limited to sex: male or female. Statistics New Zealand is currently reviewing this, with the hope of developing a new statistical standard for gender identity and definitions for a more inclusive 2018 Census.

To Beyer, the achievement was not so much in being the first, but in “offering other people hope, when they feel hopeless. That their lives are worthless because of who they are or what they are, or their particular circumstances.” On the practical side she rates wins for her electorate, such as getting new hospitals, saving their polytechs, and dealing with child murders that the community had under her watch. “Real, hard issues stuff.”

It was the hard issues stuff she speaks most enthusiastically about when recalling on her time in Parliament, notably the passing of civil unions and prostitution reform. “I could speak powerfully on those issues [in the House], from a real visceral experience of all the negativity that we were trying to erode with some of that legislation.” Though Labour would have liked to have passed marriage equality, the political climate of the time did not permit it. “We had Destiny Church and Brian Tamaki, and all this horrible stuff—which we hadn’t seen since homosexual law reform in the mid-80’s—pour out again with Civil Unions, and we just scraped through getting that passed.”

Prostitution reform also passed with the slimmest of margins. The vote that got the bill across the line came from two MPs changing their mind. One was ACT MP Heather Roy, who said the strength of Beyer and her fellow Labour MP Winnie Laban’s speeches changed her mind (Laban is now Victoria’s Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Pasifika)). “The best debates in Parliament have always happened in conscience votes, when the quality of a person’s mind is properly exposed… An impassioned speech can make a difference in Parliament.

“In parliamentary politics, being who I am, and being proud of who I am, let me get away with an awful lot. Speaking in the House, I could make double entendre and innuendo that other members would be pulled up on, but they didn’t quite know what to do with me. I loved the confusion at the time.” In some respects Beyer thought Helen Clark, the Prime Minister at the time, received worse treatment than she: “‘you can’t have children!’, ‘you’re a barren woman!’, and ‘aren’t you a lesbian sometimes?’” she recalls. “[Not having children is] a cruel thing to throw at a woman.”

Beyer marked the foreshore and seabed legislation debate as the beginning of the end of her political career. Disobeying her caucus colleagues, she requested to abstain from voting, which subsequently forced Clark to rely on Winston Peters and NZ First to get the numbers to pass it. “I can remember that caucus meeting very well… I got up and asked if I could abstain, and I was howled down. I was literally howled down by the entire caucus.”

Beyer admits she didn’t like caucus politics. “I don’t like the ‘oh you should be a part of this little faction over here, because we’ll support you when you want something and blah blah.’ And I never did join up with particular factions—yes, I did belong to the rainbow sector and this and that. But when it came falling into caucus lines I was sometimes not quite often the odd one out.”

Rather than walking out on the Labour Party, as Tariana Turia did (forming the Māori Party) Beyer “bit [her] lip and sucked it up.” Her reasoning was pretty standard establishment thinking: “I would have gone with [her] if I held a Māori [electorate] seat, but I didn’t. I held a General seat.” As such, walking out would have ended her political career. Ironically, it was staying there that did it.

She vowed that after that experience she would never again compromise her ethnicity for political expediency. “A vast majority of my electorate said vote in favour… but my Māori-ness was telling me no. And in politics, you can’t let your heart rule your head. I don’t know sometimes how you can separate those things.” Beyer avoided engaging with Māori after that, feeling too ashamed, and she watched on as her Māori colleagues in the Labour party were promoted for what she describes as “their betrayal of Māori”. When her own promotion to Minister wasn’t forthcoming, “I thought well stuff this, and I left.”

For someone whose political success can somewhat be attributed to a personality that was compelled to do the opposite of what was expected, it’s not surprising that when Hone Harawira asked Beyer for a favour around the 2014 election, Beyer was soon making headlines again.

Her explanation of why she got back involved with politics, standing as a candidate for Internet-Mana, was pretty simple: a favour for Harawira. “I said give me your policy, let me have a look. ‘Oh yeah, I could sell most of that, and I could agree with most of that—yep, alright, I’ll be your candidate.”

“I had an open mind about [the Mana and Internet Party agreement], until I spent three hours on the ferry from Wellington to Picton with Dotcom. In that three hours, I decided by the time I got to Picton, nah-uh.” Not for you? “No, he wasn’t for the country. I can only talk from my intuition and gut instinct, which is pretty good, and I thought I don’t think your motives for involving yourself to this degree in our politics in this county was entirely honorable.”

Beyer didn’t think he had any understanding of “the way we are as Kiwis when it comes to politics.” Whilst she sympathises with Dotcom’s individual qualms with National, comparing the raids on the Dotcom mansion to the Te Urewera raids, she didn’t agree with his approach to getting involved with politics. “Don’t use your money, your perception of power that you have an influence on this country like that, because we’ll spot a fake at 50 paces—and we did!”

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