Back in the game
Back in the game
Georgina Beyer tells a good yarn. There are so many stories – humorous and tragic in equal measure – that it’s quite a temptation just to let them roll. It’s hard not to, really. Beyer is a talker. A verbal gold medallist. Turn the dictaphone on and she’s away, galloping down one avenue of her life before leaping back to the future. Here’s one:
While MP for Wairarapa under Helen Clark’s Labour government she attended a reunion at Wellesley College, the boys-only school in Lower Hutt. On arrival she, along with all the other ‘‘old boys’’, was escorted into the hall by a pupil. The kid escorting her wasn’t sure what to make of this rather glamorous middle-aged woman. An old girl?
‘‘I leaned over and told him, ‘Don’t worry, you’re the only one with an MP, the rest are all public servants.’’’
A raucous guttural laugh follows such anecdotes. But that contagious mirth regularly gives way to a spitting, hissing admonishment of those who have wronged her or others marginalised in society.
And she’s about to unleash merry hell on them from an international stage when she takes to the podium at the prestigious Oxford Union later this month.
Yes, she will talk about her life – her experience as the world’s first trans-sexual mayor and MP, life on the streets as a sex worker, her near-death duel with end-stage renal failure and her kidney transplant. But while she’s got the stage she wants to sock it to the leaders of countries which continue to malign the trans and rainbow communities.
‘‘I’m going to step out other countries in the world who are cruel to the rainbow community, those who still put us to death, those who treat us abominably as third-class citizens. Russia, most certainly, some African countries. There’s a big human rights gap worldwide so I figure while I have this platform I want people to know, I am looking at you!’’.
Beyer (Te A¯ ti Awa, Nga¯ ti Mutunga, Nga¯ ti Raukawa, Nga¯ ti Porou) was mayor of Carterton from 1995 to 2000 and MP for Wairarapa for three terms after being elected in 1999. By her own admission, she may not have been the most outstanding politician, but she is proud of the campaigns for the Civil Union Bill and the Prostitution Reform Bill, which she supported, and for delivering on promises to her constituents.
Her life has been one of great contrast – of light and dark, fame and obscurity.
These days, she has digs in the Wellington suburb of Kilbirnie. Scattered around her flat are various trophies and awards and some conversation-starting photographs.
Tucked away on one bookshelf is one of Beyer with Jerry Hall, Ruby Wax and Graham Norton. It was taken in 2000 when she had appeared on Wax’s talk show in London.
Recalling how she met Hall in make-up, Beyer says she unashamedly ‘‘fan-girled her’’.
‘‘We compared breasts – she’s on her third pair – and she said, ‘You’re fabulous’ and I said, ‘Honey, you’re fabulous’, and then she invited me to a party that night at [Rolling Stones’] Ronnie Wood’s new bar. I was full of angst. I wanted to go so much.’’ But, conscious of how it might look if she swanned off to a shindig on taxpayer dime, she declined.
There are pictures of Beyer with the Queen, but those stories are less ebullient.
After years of ill-health, Beyer is looking good. While she complains of transplant postop drugs making her bloated, she is a million miles away from the skeletal woman staring death in the face with end stage renal failure diagnosed in 2013.
Before her life-saving kidney transplant last year Beyer was on dialysis four times a day, seven days a week. She was able to selfadminister the drugs, which came in handy when she agreed at the 11th hour to stand for the Mana Party in Te Tai Tonga in 2014. She didn’t win. She’s not sure how she would have managed if she had, given how unwell she was at the time.
It took four years but she’s back and in fighting form, hoping to turn her fortunes around using Oxford as a launch pad into some form of decent paid employment.
Much has been written about her financial woes and her struggle to find employment post politics, which eventually led her to the dole queue. She gets by on a supported-living payment, and her trip to the United Kingdom has been funded by Air New Zealand and donations from friends.
But Beyer, 60, is definitely back on the scene. She waded into the recent debate between the trans community and some moreradical feminists who are arguing over who has the right to be designated a woman.
Her advice to the new generation of trans activists is to be less adversarial. And while the radical feminists have a right to express their view, they are slightly hysterical, she says. ‘‘I don’t know what they are afraid of. It sort of smacks of hypocrisy. I think they, and the world, need to realise that there is indeed a third gender in this world and transgender is it.’’
She talks about the MeToo movement with fire in her belly, praising those who have the courage to come forward and tell their story and then face the ridicule that usually comes after it. ‘‘It’s about stepping out this shit and confronting those who wish to deny it.’’
Beyer’s life story has filled thousands of column inches since she first burst on to the political stage in 1993 when she became a councillor in the South Wairarapa town of Carterton.
Born George Bertrand, she identified as female from the age of four or five. ‘‘I didn’t know what it was at the time. I played it out till it got disciplined out of me, bullied out of me, abused out of me, until I found myself in control of my own life.’’
She wanted to be an entertainer, an actress – the latter she achieved later in the film
Jewel’s Darl, for which she received a GOFTA nomination.
Becoming a sex worker wasn’t on the cards but lack of options as a ‘trannie’ soon steered her down this alley. ‘‘I hated prostitution from the first client to the last. It wasn’t all bad but it was brutal and cruel and you were treated as the scum of the earth. Trannies were the lowest of the low.
‘‘It was very easy to get into the industry. It was a lot harder to get out of it.’’
In her memoir Beyer describes being packraped while working in Australia, and attempted suicide soon afterwards.
It was a turning point. An internal rage instilled a determination to live proudly and openly as a trans-sexual, culminating in her gender reassignment at the age of 27.
In becoming Georgina, she was rejected by her immediate family.
When her dying mother asked her to attend her funeral as George, Georgina couldn’t refuse. Her mother was the only member of the family she still respected, someone she didn’t want to disappoint.
‘‘Going to her funeral as her son, well, I looked ridiculous – long hair, breasts, wearing a man’s suit and tie. I was slightly hurt at the time but that’s the way they were brought up, the way they know and understand the world. I mean, being gay was illegal back then.
‘‘But I couldn’t give a stuff about anyone else in the family and I said as much at her funeral. At the wake I changed back into Georgina and when everyone turned up at the house they were all horrified and outraged. I said, ‘stuff you, you all know this is what I am, it’s not my problem anymore, it’s yours. And you can fester over it as much as you like. Thank you and goodbye.
‘‘I wrote them off a long time ago. They would have been more detrimental to me in the progress of my life than helpful.’’
She learned a lot of transferable skills on the street that were helpful later on in Parliament, she says.
‘‘Being out there soliciting for a client is not so much different to soliciting for a vote. Money does change hands in both situations; one’s called a donation to a political party or candidate and one’s called business.’’
It’s hard to know what the young Beyer might have thought if she could see herself now. She’d probably have thought ‘‘Are you kidding me?’’, she says.
‘‘If my younger self was looking at me now I guess she would be saying, ‘Bloody well done. Good on you. What an inspiration. What a motivator. Against all the odds you were able to pull down the barriers and move forward.’’’
‘‘Soliciting for a client is not so much different to soliciting for a vote. Money does change hands in both situations.’’