GE­ORGINA BEYER

Back in the game

The Southland Times - - National Portrait - Words: Bess Man­son Im­age: Ross Gi­b­lin

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

‘‘So­lic­it­ing for a client is not so much dif­fer­ent to so­lic­it­ing for a vote. Money does change hands in both sit­u­a­tions.’’

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.’’’

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