2 GE­ORGINA BEYER – her sec­ond chance at life and search for love

A life-threat­en­ing ill­ness has not doused the fiery spirit of Ge­orgina Beyer. The world’s first trans­gen­der mayor and MP talks to Judy Bai­ley about her kid­ney trans­plant, her search for work and love, and why she may yet return to pol­i­tics.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - EDITOR’S LETTER -

The first thing I no­tice as Ge­orgina Beyer wel­comes me into her hous­ing corp apart­ment in Wellington is a photo of her with the Queen. Her Majesty, I think to my­self, looks hap­pier than she nor­mally does at such oc­ca­sions, a broad smile on her face that reaches her eyes. There’s a de­light there and it’s easy to see why. I ex­pect she’s think­ing, ‘Here, at last, is some­one who is not afraid to be her­self, who won’t put on airs and graces, some­one who will be in­ter­est­ing to talk to.’ She wouldn’t be dis­ap­pointed.

Ge­orgina, or Ge­orgie as her mates call her, is a peo­ple mag­net. She is warm, sen­si­tive, en­gag­ing and of­ten ou­tra­geous. She is also a great racon­teur.

As we sit to be­gin our chat, I spot an­other pic­ture of Ge­orgina with the Queen. “Oh that was in 95 on my first trip to Gov­ern­ment House in Wellington.” She was the mayor of Carter­ton at the time. “Dame Cath [Tizard] was a great sup­porter of mine, and she brought the Queen over to meet me.” Again I no­tice the big, real, smile from Her Majesty. The two chat­ted and then Ge­orgina made her way to the VIP tent where she met Joan Bol­ger, the wife of then prime min­is­ter Jim Bol­ger. “Joan said to me, ‘I see you met the Queen,’ and I said, ‘She’s the first real Queen I’ve ever met!’” She laughs up­roar­i­ously at this. Be­cause of course she is loud and proud as a mem­ber of the trans­gen­der com­mu­nity.

Need­less to say, the head­line in the Bri­tish papers the fol­low­ing day screamed: “The first real Queen I’ve ever met, by Ge­orge”.

Ge­orgina was born Ge­orge in Novem­ber of 1957 to Noe­line and Jack Ber­trand. Noe­line, of Te Ati Awa her­itage, was train­ing as a nurse. Jack, of Ngati Mu­tunga, was a po­lice­man. The cou­ple even­tu­ally di­vorced and son Ge­orge was sent to live with Noe­line’s parents on their Taranaki farm, where he stayed un­til his mother re­mar­ried.

It wasn’t ideal. Lit­tle Ge­orge’s grand­fa­ther didn’t want his grand­son around. “One day my un­cles had been out hunt­ing and they brought back a lit­tle fawn as a pet for me. I was de­lighted. But I let it run riot and it got into the gar­den. My grand­fa­ther dragged me out of bed one morn­ing, then he killed the fawn in front of me and thrashed me with a piece of bam­boo.” Ge­orgina is mat­ter-of-fact as she tells me about this. “Times were dif­fer­ent then,” she ex­plains. “It was just the way things were.”

“My grand­mother was my great­est pro­tec­tor.” Ge­orgina was just 10 when her grand­mother died. She was dev­as­tated.

Like many Maori chil­dren of the time,

Ge­orgina was, in her words, ‘pakeha-fied’. Te Reo was for­eign to her. “I re­mem­ber going to stay with my great aunt in the school hol­i­days. She had a moko. I was fright­ened by it. When I had to at­tend a tangi, or fu­neral, I was ter­ri­fied by the whole marae sit­u­a­tion.

“At three or four I be­gan to feel dif­fer­ent.

I used to play with a lit­tle girl down the road. There was a big dress-up box and I was drawn to the dresses. We’d put on lit­tle shows and all the adults loved it. But as I grew older, about seven or eight, the adults be­gan to con­di­tion me out of it. I was ex­pected to go out hunt­ing and do ‘boy’ things. I hated it. I be­gan to re­late dress­ing up as a girl with pun­ish­ment.”

Ge­orgina’s mother, Noe­line, had by now re­mar­ried. Her new hus­band, Colin Beyer, a young Wellington lawyer, was a mover and shaker in the cap­i­tal. He and his Wellington Col­lege friends, in­clud­ing Ron Bri­er­ley, and Trevor Beyer, Colin’s brother, were mem­bers of the Wellington brat pack of the time. Orig­i­nal di­rec­tors of the prop­erty com­pany Bri­er­ley In­vest­ments, they were all ex­tremely wealthy by the end of the 1960s. They lived the high life. Ge­orgina re­mem­bers that along with fel­low

I was ex­pected to go out hunt­ing and do ‘boy’ things. I hated it.

prop­erty de­vel­oper Bob Jones, they would gather their fam­i­lies and have Sun­day cricket matches in Otai­hanga on the Kapiti Coast.

Ge­orgina had re­turned to live with her new­ly­wed mother when she was about five. She con­tin­ued to want to dress as a girl. “I be­came se­cre­tive about it. When Mum and Dad were out I would dive into Mum’s lace table­cloths and prance about in them. Then I would re­place them in ex­actly the same place.”

One day, though, she de­cided to wear a dress out­side the house. “Mum was a won­der­ful dress­maker and milliner. I dressed to the nines and then trot­ted off to the dairy. Un­for­tu­nately, the dairy owner recog­nised me and phoned my mother.” Her mum and step­fa­ther were hor­ri­fied.

“I for­give them now – af­ter all, they were the so­cial mores of the times.”

By the time Ge­orge reached in­ter­me­di­ate school, Noe­line and Colin’s mar­riage was in trou­ble. Their son was sent to the ex­clu­sive Welles­ley board­ing school in Day’s Bay. They were happy years. When Ge­orgina was a mem­ber of par­lia­ment, she re­turned to Welles­ley for a re­union. She was as­signed one of the cur­rent stu­dents as a chap­er­one and no­ticed him looking con­fused as he read her name tag. It said: Ge­orgina Beyer – old boy. “Don’t worry, she told him, “look at all these peo­ple – I’m the only mem­ber of par­lia­ment and you’ve got me.”

“I’m glad I went to Welles­ley,” she tells me now. “It grounded me, the dis­ci­pline there.”

By the time he left Welles­ley, Ge­orge’s mother’s mar­riage had bro­ken down and Noe­line would again be on her own. With no money for pri­vate schools, Ge­orge was sent to Onslow Col­lege – an­other great move for him.

“There was a huge stu­dent protest run­ning at the time to get rid of the uni­form and short-hair rules. We staged sit-ins and forced the res­ig­na­tion of some of the board of gov­er­nors. We were suc­cess­ful and be­came a mufti school. The ‘dis­obe­di­ence’ had paid off and I rel­ished it,” Ge­orgina laughs. The seeds of her fu­ture ac­tivism were planted there.

Noe­line then moved to Auck­land, to a nurs­ing job at Mid­dle­more Hos­pi­tal. Ge­orge found him­self at Pa­p­a­toe­toe High School and it was there he be­gan a lifetime love af­fair with drama. Of course one of the at­trac­tions was that it al­lowed him to dress up and wear make-up. “I be­came a theatre groupie.”

By 16, Ge­orge had left school, against his mother’s wishes, in­tend­ing to go to drama school in Wellington. But money was a prob­lem. How to earn it? It wasn’t long be­fore Ge­orge was liv­ing as Ge­orgina.

She was in­evitably drawn to the cap­i­tal’s night­club scene and the trans­gen­der com­mu­nity, cen­tred on the strip clubs and cabarets of Vi­vian Street. She had cut all ties with her fam­ily.

“I didn’t want to deal with their dis­ap­proval,” she ad­mits.

She was be­ing sup­ported by friends in the gay com­mu­nity and be­came a reg­u­lar at Car­men’s Bal­cony where she was en­tranced with the gor­geous show “girls”.

“Once they opened their mouths, I re­alised what they were… tran­nies.”

Ge­orgina be­gan work­ing as a singer and cabaret per­former but ended up work­ing in strip clubs and sup­ple­ment­ing that in­come on the streets. They were reck­less days, the early 1980s. “We took a cock­tail of drugs – up­pers, down­ers, hor­mones – enough to kill an ele­phant,” she says rue­fully.

Even­tu­ally she de­cided the time was right to come out. She called her mother to tell her about her new sta­tus. Noe­line was not im­pressed.

She had her own prob­lems. She was dy­ing of cer­vi­cal cancer. She lost her bat­tle in the late 1970s, at just 43 years old.

Once they opened their mouths, I re­alised what they were… tran­nies.

Ge­orgina finally found enough cash to pay for her gen­der re­as­sign­ment surgery in 1984. At last com­fort­able in her own skin, her life be­gan to look up. She found work and suc­cess as an ac­tress. Her star­ring role in the sem­i­nal Kiwi drama, Jewel’s Darl (1987), earned her a best ac­tress nom­i­na­tion in the film and tele­vi­sion awards of the day. The fact she was nom­i­nated as best ac­tress is a per­sonal tri­umph she rel­ishes to this day. Other roles fol­lowed.

But it was her move to the Wairarapa town of Carter­ton that would prove a defin­ing mo­ment in her life. She worked as a ra­dio host, and found her­self be­com­ing in­volved in lo­cal pol­i­tics. It was the home­less who gal­vanised her into ac­tion. In 1991, af­ter the “Mother of all Bud­gets”, ben­e­fits were slashed by 25 per cent and the home­less be­gan to ap­pear on Carter­ton’s streets.

Ge­orgina wanted to park a car­a­van on coun­cil land to pro­vide shel­ter for those peo­ple. The coun­cil turned her down. She was in­fu­ri­ated by this lack of con­cern and took lit­tle per­suad­ing to run for coun­cil, know­ing she could make a dif­fer­ence. Al­though she missed out nar­rowly on her first at­tempt, she would go on to be­come mayor and then, once her cred­i­bil­ity was firmly es­tab­lished, the Labour MP for Wairarapa.

“I felt a great sense of achieve­ment. But it was hard. I had to start from scratch [and learn the busi­ness of pol­i­tics].”

It was a lonely time. “It took a long time to gain ac­cep­tance in the role. It was two years be­fore the mayor would in­vite me to his Christ­mas func­tion,” she says.

As the world’s first trans­gen­der mayor and MP, she put Carter­ton and the Wairarapa on the map. “I was shame­less about pro­mot­ing them. You can’t frit­ter away those op­por­tu­ni­ties. Sud­denly peo­ple built up pride; there was no ‘ooh yuck’ fac­tor.”

She left par­lia­ment in 2007 and since then has strug­gled with find­ing work. You would think she’d be snapped up – a high-pro­file mover and shaker with a good brain, a sharp wit and a list of

I guess Ge­orgina Beyer has a rep­u­ta­tion as be­ing feisty and that’s too scary for some peo­ple.

achieve­ments be­hind her – but it wasn’t to be.

“For­mer politi­cians are some­times box-of­fice poi­son,” she tells me sadly. “I guess Ge­orgina Beyer has a rep­u­ta­tion as be­ing feisty and that’s too scary for some peo­ple.”

She had to sell her house to get money to live. Even­tu­ally the money ran out and, strug­gling with ill health, she was forced to ap­ply for the dole. The hu­mil­i­a­tion still causes the tears to spill.

“The last time I’d been in that WINZ of­fice I was the lo­cal mem­ber, es­cort­ing the prime min­is­ter. It was em­bar­rass­ing, shame­ful. It de­stroyed a piece of my soul,” she sobs bro­kenly.

She is par­tic­u­larly frag­ile right now, re­cov­er­ing from a kid­ney trans­plant that she hopes will be the key to a new life. Di­ag­nosed with chronic kid­ney dis­ease in 2013, she spent four years “of hell” on dial­y­sis, un­til, on her 58th birth­day, a friend of­fered her his kid­ney.

The drugs she still has to take are tak­ing a toll. She has re­gained the 20kg she lost on dial­y­sis, and then some, be­moan­ing the fact she can no longer fit the de­signer out­fits she used to wear. And she is tor­mented by mood swings. But each day she’s closer to re­cov­ery.

The trans­gen­der com­mu­nity has much to thank her for. “All those years sell­ing my ass on Vi­vian Street, I stood on the shoul­ders of those who went be­fore. Now peo­ple stand on my shoul­ders. There are now trans­gen­der doc­tors and lawyers. Peo­ple can at last reach their po­ten­tial.”

She has a com­fort­ing word for parents of trans­gen­der and ho­mo­sex­ual chil­dren. “Don’t beat your­selves up,” she says. “We tend to for­get that they some­times pun­ish them­selves for the way their chil­dren have turned out.”

Ge­orgina hasn’t given away thoughts of a return to pol­i­tics. Her heart is in the Wairarapa. But she tells me, wist­fully, “I’ve sac­ri­ficed my per­sonal life [for pol­i­tics], I’ve never had a hus­band or a boyfriend and that would be nice.”

There is a lone­li­ness there, a space that yearns to be filled.

RIGHT: Now nearly 60, Ge­orgina is looking ahead to bet­ter years af­ter re­cov­er­ing from her kid­ney trans­plant.

BE­LOW: Young school­boy Ge­orge and the glam­orous woman he be­came as Ge­orgina.

ABOVE, FROM LEFT: Ge­orgina on the steps of par­lia­ment; meet­ing the Queen; and as a com­peti­tor on tele­vi­sion show Danc­ing with the Stars in 2005.

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