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Our Georgie: How Beyer broke down the barriers

Few lives are as colourful and courageous as Georgina Beyer’s.

In the annals of global politics, she ranks among a select few to break seemingly impenetrable glass ceilings.

Beyer, who died last week, aged 65, was catapulted onto the global stage when she became the world’s first-ever transgender mayor and then Member of Parliament.

The many history-making achievements, from a most unlikely corner of the world – Wairarapa – will see her forever described as a trailblazer.

But to those who knew and loved her, the legacy she leaves behind is much like the woman herself – difficult to categorise and impossible to contain.

“Marrying the two parts of her – the serious mayor of Carterton and later MP, to her colourful side – is a challenge,” former Labour list MP Denise MacKenzie says.

“And some of her more colourful bits couldn’t be written down. There were two sides to her personality that were, at times, in conflict.”

Born in Wellington in 1957, to parents Noeline and Jack Bertrand, Beyer’s start to life was far from smooth.

Assigned male at birth, she was named after her recently deceased paternal grandfather – George Bertrand, a lieutenant in the 28th Maori Battalion.

Within a year of Beyer’s birth, Noeline divorced her police officer husband and – as Beyer would recall – found herself in an unenviable position: A Maori solo mother in the 1950s.

After a few short years living with her maternal grandparents in Taranaki, Beyer returned to Wellington and her mother, who was now a trained nurse and had remarried – to solicitor Colin Beyer.

In Beyer’s words, it was a “mildly well-off” childhood, peppered with both state and private schooling. She was never deprived.

But her effeminate tendencies, which at four were “cute”, soon elicited contempt and, at times, cruelty.

“It was frowned upon and reinforced with punishment. Verbal, physical, and mental cruelty, really.”

The idea that you could “beat out” undesirable behaviour was characteristic of her generation, Beyer said, so while unable to forgive her parents, she did not blame them.

“I was having to pay the price for their shame and their embarrassment, and when I relieved myself of the guilt, I liberated myself entirely.”

Theatre became a refuge for the teenage Beyer, allowing her to dress in costume and wear makeup, a desire she fully realised years later in the embrace of the drag scenes in Wellington and Auckland.

MacKenzie recalls those same friends later turning out “in force” to support Beyer’s 2005 election campaign as a Labour list MP.

“I remember a fundraiser she organised, and you have to realise these were usually pretty mundane affairs – a wine evening or a raffle.”

Not Beyer’s.

“She and all the drag queens put on a special show.

“It was absolutely spectacular. I have never forgotten their love and devotion to raising money for Georgina.

“She was the queen of queens.”

But discrimination, abuse, and sexual assault reigned outside queer communities.

Unable to secure fulltime employment after leaving school, or receive the benefit as a trans-woman – refusing Work and Income’s [WINZ] directive to “just put some pants on and work” – the young Beyer turned to sex work.

Despite wanting to escape this means to an end, standing up to WINZ proved to be pivotal, she said – although unaware of it at the time, Beyer later recognised it was a political statement.

To Beyer’s friends, however, that defiance and unshakeable sense of justice was Georgie through and through.

“She did what she wanted and, I think more importantly, what she needed,” Grant Pittams recalls.

“I would describe Georgie as a politician to her fingertips.

“Even when she was no longer in a formal political role, she was still a total politician.”

In 1984, Beyer underwent sex reassignment, and after a stint in Auckland, found herself like some “exotic creature” in the town where her life in public office began – Carterton.

Running for council in 1992, Beyer said the level of support floored her – and she missed out on a seat by just 14 votes.

But she recalled not everyone was so quick to look beyond her colourful past – when a councillor stepped down, the council refused to appoint her, and instead insisted on another election.

“I got half the votes; the other four candidates shared the rest,” Beyer said in later interviews.

“The urban constituents gave the finger to the council.”

Mayoral chains and eye-catching international headlines followed in 1995, and in 1999 the Labour Party came calling.

“I ticked at least three boxes. Maori, transgender, woman,” Beyer once said.

And before she knew it, a boots-on-the-ground campaign was underway in Wairarapa.

However, in 1999 Beyer didn’t drive, says former Masterton mayor and long-time Labour Party member Lyn Patterson.

“So many of us spent many hours driving her to campaign across the electorate.”

The long hours in the car often led to frank conversations, and Patterson says it became apparent during the door knocking that “people just loved her”.

“Never once did anybody refuse to see her.”

It was a landslide victory for Beyer, beating former Today FM co-worker and broadcaster Paul Henry, and securing the previously safe National seat.

Although stunned, Beyer credited her win to a certain chutzpah.

“I had, excuse the expression, some balls about me, and they liked that.”

Carterton Mayor Ron Mark says Beyer, being unashamedly proud of who she was, forced people like him to confront their prejudices.

“I’m one of those men who grew up in a certain era, and we are imbued with the attitudes of our time. Honestly, what was wrong with us? What she did is an amazing achievement, really.”

Leaning on humour to break the tension – her parliamentary maiden speech a famous example – and her ability to speak off-the-cuff simply dragged people in, Patterson says.

“She could spot bullshit from a mile away, and was an outstanding orator. I remember an event at Hood Aerodrome, mostly old codgers interested in flying microlights.

“She spoke to them for 40 minutes, no notes, and they were just absolutely spellbound. I remember it being quite risqué. They just loved her.”

But as a fierce individual, Parliament and party politics were challenging, and Beyer resented having to spend so much time in Wellington, preferring instead to be among her electorate.

The Foreshore and Seabed Act of 2004 marked the beginning of the end of her political career.

Being forced to vote along party lines for something she believed to be inherently wrong left Beyer feeling “defeated and impotent”.

“One by one, Maori caucus members fell into line.

“And I vowed I would never again be torn between my heritage and political expediency.”

In 2005, Beyer stood as a list MP, but bowed out of Parliament two years later, proud of having helped deliver legislation that reformed prostitution laws and legalised civil unions.

“Given my background, I was a strong advocate for reform. I would never have thought when I was on Vivian St back in those days, that I would find myself in a position to be able to change the law.”

Not long after stepping down, a routine eye examination resulted in the diagnosis in 2013 of an insidious disease– kidney failure.

Options became increasingly limited – donation or dialysis – and after several failed tissue matches with family, Pittams put up his hand.

“She was becoming more and more ill, and I thought I cannot stand here and let a friend of ours die when I could do something about it.

“And I had this feeling that we weren’t done yet, that Georgie wasn’t finished.”

The final battery of tests was like a hurdle race, but in 2017 the donation was successful, and “Georgie got her life back on track”, Pittams says.

But it was not forever, and a few weeks ago, she made the brave decision to cease treatment.

In 2020, in recognition of her political achievements and tireless LGBTIQA+ advocacy, Beyer was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit [MNZM].

In less time than most, Beyer would leave a lasting impression.

For MacKenzie, it’s following in Beyer’s footsteps on the campaign trail.

“I did what Georgina did and remember this older man in Akito saying, ‘I hope you have as much balls as the previous candidate.’

“I wasn’t sure how to take that. But said, ‘oh yes, I have plenty of determination.’

“She was a hugely intelligent person and could be all over something very quickly. She cut to the chase of the real issues.”

Beyer’s characteristic compassion for children and ability to fire up a room is what Pittams will miss.

“She was always so passionate, in everything, and was not one to sit quietly in the corner.

“She had her opinions, and she made them strongly.

“Life will be a lot quieter without Georgie.”

Mary Argue
Mary Argue
Mary Argue is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with an interest in justice and the region’s emergency services, regularly covering Masterton District Court, Fire and Emergency and Police.

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