1 Mar 2017

'She's a good chap'

From Eyewitness, 3:35 pm on 1 March 2017

On Valentine's Day 2007 Georgina Beyer brought down the curtain on her eight-year career in government. The first openly transsexual person in the world to be elected to parliament, her short time in national politics had been remarkable for its candour and courage, as well as for its achievements.

Georgina Beyer.

Georgina Beyer rose to become a local councillor, a mayor and an MP - breaking new ground, and winning support, along the way. Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

At times it must have seemed to Georgina Beyer that she had spent most of her career in politics in the passenger seat of a car. During the election campaign of 1999, Georgina - who back then didn't have a licence - was driven over almost all of the enormous, mostly rural, Wairarapa electorate by a volunteer driver.

Once she had won the seat, her duties as an MP saw Georgina back on those same roads most days of the week. Now that she was leaving parliament for the last time, it seemed somehow appropriate that Georgina should do so by simply driving away; but this time, in control of the vehicle.

"I just got in my car and drove home. There was no sadness."

Georgina Beyer (Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Porou) was born in Wellington in 1957 and given the name George Bertrand. After leaving home, she pursued a career in acting while also working in the Wellington gay nightclub scene and spending some time in the sex industry.

In 1984 she underwent sex reassignment surgery and some years later, seeking a new start, she moved to the small Wairarapa town of Carterton. In 1992 Georgina stood for election to the local council and narrowly missed out on a seat but in a by-election a year later, she romped home.

The following year Georgina ran for the top job in the town and won, becoming the world’s first transsexual mayor, Carteron’s first female mayor and the first Māori mayor Wairarapa had ever seen. Media around the world wanted a piece of the story and, overnight, Georgina became a star. It was inevitable that sooner or later one of the big political parties would come calling and, in 1998, they did.

Georgina Beyer's official portrait as Mayor of Carterton.

Georgina Beyer's official portrait as Carterton's mayor Photo: Supplied.

The next general election was a year away and there was a feeling that change was in the air. The National Party had been in government for eight years and Deputy PM Wyatt Creech, who had won the Wairarapa seat four times in a row, this time was standing only on the National Party list.

The Labour Party felt the seat was winnable and Georgina was the woman to do it. She was approached by veteran Labour MP and activist Sonya Davies to stand as their candidate in Wairarapa.

Georgina said no, and she said no again when asked once more. She was summoned to a dinner meeting with Labour Party leader Helen Clark.

"Helen said, 'We're looking for star performers.' And I thought, 'Oh yeah, is that all I'm good for?'"

Anecdotal evidence suggested support for her in the electorate ran deeper than mere popularity. In the 2002 documentary Georgie Girl, Sonya Davies recalls a gruff old farmer telling her he wasn't voting for National that year.

"He said, 'I'm going to vote for that Georgina Beyer because she's a go-getter.' "

"And she's a good chap!"

Georgina ran a bare-bones campaign built on retail politics, visiting every corner of the electorate and shaking as many hands as she could. Up-and-coming broadcaster Paul Henry was picked by National to run against her and while there wasn’t a lot of polling, the two were pretty clearly in a tight race.

But one disastrous TV interview, where Henry attempted to use Georgina’s past against her and suggested that her gender identity meant she wasn't a serious person might have swung the seat her way.

"That went down like a cup of cold sick."

The election was held on 27 November 1999 and for the first few hours after voting closed and counting began, the results weren't going Georgina's way. But late in the evening the tide began to turn. Georgina was giving a live radio interview when a supporter interrupted to tell her she had won.

"I was gobsmacked, frankly. Just as much of the country was at the time."

Georgina Beyer had beaten Paul Henry by more than 3000 votes on a 35 percent swing away from National. She was now the world’s first transsexual member of parliament. 

In December 1999, Labour was sworn in as the government. Everyone was waiting to hear what Georgina would say in her maiden speech. She didn't disappoint them.

'I was quoted once as saying that this was the stallion that became a gelding and now she's a mayor. I do have to say that I've now found myself to be a Member (of Parliament)."

Georgina's campaign promises included saving the local hospital and polytechnic from being closed and improving the Rimutaka road connecting Wairarapa with Wellington. She kept those promises, but with the media here and abroad going mad for her, she found balancing electorate duties with media requests to be a bit of a high-wire act. 

Understandably, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and asexual community also expected quite a lot from one of their own. Georgina was named Queer of the Year in 2000, but was also accused of putting the gay community ahead of her electorate.

After being elected to parliament, Georgina continued in her role as mayor of Carterton, but when her workload forced her to step down, her constituents were disappointed and let her know. She didn’t much like the nastiness of the debating chamber and often considered quitting, sometimes out loud in the media.

Being re-elected in 2002 with a doubled majority helped her sense of belonging, but the rigidity of party politics began to rub her the wrong way and at times she was out of step with her caucus colleagues. In 2004 the Labour government tried to pass the foreshore and seabed legislation, which would vest ownership of this contested zone with the Crown.

Labour’s Māori MPs, who felt that iwi held customary title, were enraged and so was Georgina. Despite her opposition, caucus discipline meant Georgina had to ignore what her conscience was telling her and vote in favour of the bill.

"And I have felt terrible about that ever since."

Cartoonist Christopher Slane's take on Georgina's issues with the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act.

Cartoonist Christopher Slane's take on Georgina's issues with the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act Photo: Slane, Christopher, 1957-; Listener (Serial); New Zealand herald (Newspaper); New Zealand farmers' weekly (Serial)

But there were moments when Georgina could truly speak her mind. In 2004 at the infamous “Enough is enough” rally outside parliament, she faced down members of Destiny Church opposed to civil unions.

During the third reading of the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act, Georgina channeled her passion and her past in a truly memorable speech.

The bill had been expected to fail, but passed narrowly and many believed it was Georgina's speech that had made the difference.

But the good days were becoming fewer and Georgina's commitment to parliament was wavering. In 2004 she decided not to contest the next election but changed her mind and stood on the Labour Party list.

Georgina was elected but a year later announced she was leaving parliament for good. Her resignation took effect on Valentine's Day 2007 and after some farewells, she packed up her car and drove away.

Georgina was the first transsexual mayor in the world and the first Māori mayor in Wairarapa. She was the first female mayor of Carterton and the world's first transsexual MP. In the 10 years since her resignation, openly transgender leaders have been elected elsewhere in the world, but Georgina stands alone in this country. 

So in some ways, it's no surprise when she says she isn't overly proud of her place in history. While she may have been the first to be elected, Georgina rightly points out that many other transgender people before her had tried. She believes that any pride in her election should really be felt by those who went before her and by the people of Wairarapa.

"They did a major, major thing when they put aside (my) history and said, 'We like your chutzpah, we think you're honest and upfront. You seem to deliver. We want you.' "

"They are the story, not me."

This story was produced by Justin Gregory with additional audio from Nga Taonga Sound and Vision and also the 2002 documentary "Georgie Girl' by Annie Goldson and Peter Wells.

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