Georgina steps up
31 December 2002
Little places can wring big changes. And so it is with Carterton, a conservative rural New Zealand farming town north east of Wellington, population 7000, which took to heart a tall, glamorous woman, knowing she was once a man, and made her mayor.
Georgina Beyer’s ascendancy on the council of the daffodil-dotted town was no distortion of voting patterns. The mayoral gig lasted five years – her vote skyrocketed on re-election – and in February 2000, Beyer wrested the former blue-ribbon conservative district Wairarapa seat for Helen Clark’s Labour Party.
And henceforth, New Zealand – indeed, the world – had its first transsexual member of Parliament.
She is a former theatre, film and television actor – appearing in the soap opera
Close to Home
, first cast as a man, and a few years later, as a woman – but spent her early adult years in Wellington doing drag, stripping in seedy clubs and selling her body for sex.
The people who elected Georgina Beyer knew of this prostitution. It wasn’t an issue.
“I get asked questions no other politician would ever have to answer,” Beyer, 44, laments in an interview between sittings of Parliament in Wellington.
“Regarding the surgery, you know. ‘Did it hurt?’, or, ‘When you have sex now as a woman, is it different to how you had sex as a man?’
“Well, honey, obviously.”
The throaty kookaburra-ish life lets you in on the secret. Beyer is loving the new role.
“If comic timing and brave honesty were the measure of an MP,” waxed one report in
The New Zealand Herald
, “Georgina Beyer would be Prime Minister.”
Hers was certainly a notable maiden speech. Beyer, wearing her trademark big glasses and dark hair pulled back, with the gay-rights friendly Clark looking on, flawed the Parliament: “I was quoted once as saying this was the stallion that became a gelding and now she's a mare.
“I suppose I do have to say that I have now found myself to be a member. So I have come full circle, so to speak.”
On the eve of an appearance at a forum for Melbourne’s Midsumma gay and lesbian arts and cultural festival at the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission – and to drop a word or two about diversity in the direction of Prime Minister John Howard – Beyer is sharpening her celebrated wit.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a weapon,” she says. “I think humor has always been a powerful communicator if it’s done well. And so, yeah, it helps me to break the ice.”
Indeed, Beyer has brought a comic timing a little like
meets Dame Edna Everage to parliamentary proceedings. Of her political opponent, former New Zealand deputy prime minister and conservative National MP Wyatt Creech – who announced he would not recontest Wairarapa a week after Beyer’s candidacy was made public – the barb was ever so gently cutting in her maiden speech.
“We) have had an amicable relationship and I certainly hope that I shall do my best, as I'm sure he tried to do his best – his best has assisted me to where I am today.
“I say that in a loving way.”
But there is a serious side. Beyer is helping the government draft a civil unions bill, which would recognise same-sex relationships – not quite the legal definition of marriage, but with the same intent.
It is almost as though, given greater strides made on reconciliation with its indigenous population than Australia has so far achieved, New Zealand has gone into overdrive on a broad social justice platform. Indigenous issues occupy Beyer’s mind, too – she is part Maori.
And perhaps it is the case that, in a land that embraces female political leaders, this new take on gender – electing a transsexual politician – was simply another step. New Zealand’s political parties, it seems, care less about the gender of their politicians than do those in Australia.
Beyer is aware that fellow Parliamentarians could use her background against her. But, in 1999, she laid out her entire life for all to see in a disarmingly frank autobiography in the lead-up to the election.
Though not the intention in writing it, the book has blunted any personal barbs her political opponents might have been tempted to throw her way. “You get your moral outrage and you get some of the redneck element,” she says, “but I’ve never experienced discrimination from my colleagues in the Parliament.
“They’ll always judge me on ability and that’s the way it should be.” Or, perhaps, they are too frightened of that barbed tongue to attempt anything else.
Despite the big doses of humor, Beyer’s early life was not an easy one. She was born George Bertrand in 1957. George’s father Jack disappeared quickly off the scene — he would reappear only briefly later in his child’s adult life — and George’s mother, Noeline, left the boy in the care of his grandparents.
George started playing dress-ups with a girlfriend, Joy, at about age four. Returned to his mother and new step-father Colin – with whom he had at best an ambivalent relationship given George’s growing effeminacy – the young boy continued the cross dressing. He would cop a hiding whenever caught.
“I was happier dressed as a girl than a boy,” writes Beyer in her autobiography,
A Change for the Better
. “But I didn’t have to use actual women’s garments to get into that role. With a little imagination, I would use any material to transform me into a girl.”
Beyer did not learn about transvestism – that it was possible to change sex – until travelling to Wellington and becoming a part of the gay and drag scene at age 17. Over the next 10 years, George intermittently dabbled in acting, stripping, and prostitution, taking hormones to be Georgina.
“The patrons thought I was a woman,” says Beyer. “I had to rely on trick sex – this mean literally ‘tricking’ the client under cover of darkness into believing I was a woman by concealing my penis using my hand or whatever.
“Successful trick sex was dependent upon how inebriated the client was.”
Australia has not always been so kind to Beyer. In the late ‘70s, she hit rock bottom in Kings Cross and was brutally raped by four men, who intensified the assault when they discovered she had a penis.
Georgina made her last appearance as George for her mother Noeline’s funeral – it was a condition of the will that she must appear as a male for the event.
Her eventual sex reassignment surgery of 1984, says Beyer, was “the most significant and greatest achievement of my life”.
Surgery completed, her acting career took off, including a best actress nomination in the country’s Guild of Film & Television Arts Awards. This profile partly explains why Beyer was elected in a conservative country town as mayor in 1995.
“I was nurtured by those people,” says Beyer of Carterton’s semi-rural town, where she had moved for work. Her social conscience had developed through teaching drama to disadvantaged youth in the area.
“I think the word conservative is sometimes misused.” In turn, Beyer changed her attitude to life. By then she was in her 30s, and began crafting the notion that wit and diplomacy is better than ferocity and a chip on the shoulder.
She’s currently single – and, yes, attracted to men – but is intensely private about this side of her life. In her biography, she has noted with sadness that there has not been anyone in her life with whom to share the victories.
As mayor, Beyer’s record on local issues was strong, with the word “diversity” peppered through her media interviews on issues such as local rates, developing the regional wine industry, and town hall accessibility.
Beyer is still mulling over exactly what she will say in Australia. She says Australians have made achievements with indigenous reconciliation, but stops short when John Howard’s name is mentioned.
“Well, your prime minister – yes,” she hesitates. “I might have some things to say about John Howard.”
Beyer notes that Mr Howard refuses to send messages of good will to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras each year. "It sounds like a small matter," she says, "but it’s very symbolic.
“I’ll be speaking along the lines of embracing diversity. Of leaders actually showing leadership by taking action.”
A few years ago, when she was chasing the mayoralty, Beyer concentrated on local issues in her town, while the New Zealand media focused on her sexuality.
Only once she was elected did she realise she was carrying the “hopes and dreams of many oppressed groups” into office. “I am proud,” she says, “if it motivates people like myself in all minorities who struggle to achieve their dreams against the adversity of society's disapproval and discrimination”.
Now on the national scene, and attracting international attention, the picture is writ large. “I’m on a huge learning curve, darling,” she says, breaking into that laugh again. But she wishes people would get over the gender and sexuality thing. “All I can say is that people should get their noses out of the bedroom and stop worrying about it.”
Name: Georgina Beyer
Position: MP for Wairarapa, New Zealand
Born: Wellington, 1957
Family: Single, half-brother Andrew
Education: Papatoetoe High School
Acting career: Nomination for best actress for film
in New Zealand Guild of Film & Television Arts Awards in 1987; also appeared in
Close to Home
Inside Straight, Shark in the Park
Political career: 1995 elected Mayor of Carterton, re-elected 1998 with a 90 per cent majority. 1999 elected MP with a 32 per cent swing from National to Labour. Serving on committees for law and order, local government and environment, and MP reviews.