Georgina Beyer when she won the by-election for a seat on the Carterton District Council in 1993. PHOTO/FILE
This month marks 25 years since Georgina Beyer was elected as New Zealand’s first transsexual councillor. She went on to become the world’s first transsexual mayor and member of parliament. ELISA VORSTER looks at what made Beyer so successful in a typically right-leaning electorate that was a National party stronghold.
The 1993 Carterton District Council by-election may have been the catalyst for Georgina Beyer’s political career, but some still believe the supposed democratic process treated other candidates as pawns to pander to a transphobic council, and should never have happened.
Beyer moved to Carterton in 1990, working part-time tutoring drama and hosting a radio show with Paul Henry, as well as working with a group helping the growing number of homeless people sleeping in Carrington Park.
It wasn’t long before Beyer started rocking the boat with local government, hounding them to provide a powered caravan site to assist with shelter, only to be told by councillors it wasn’t their problem.
“We were turned down flatly – they said it was the responsibility of central government,” Beyer said.
It was at this stage “some bright spark” told her to run for council.
“I thought it was very unlikely, but let’s use the election process as a platform to express concerns.”
Despite having no money for her campaign, and printing her posters on A4 paper at the community centre, she was the highest polling unsuccessful candidate, missing out by only 14 votes.
However, it was only a matter of months before she got another shot. A Baptist minister on the council was redeployed to the Auckland ministry, and was no longer able to serve as a councillor.
As the next highest polling candidate, Beyer should have been a shoo-in for the role.
But what came next was a by-election which cost the ratepayers $8500, only for them to repeat what they had already been saying – they wanted Beyer on the council.
“That was the people in the urban ward in Carterton really giving the finger to the council for making such a silly decision to have a by-election,” Beyer says.
Allan Renall, who ran against Beyer and lost, still maintains the job was never his to fight for.
“There shouldn’t have even been a by-election – she was the next highest polling candidate,” he said.
He was approached by one of the councillors to run against Beyer, which at the time he “naively” thought was based on his merits.
“The council was definitely anti-transgender at that period of time,” he said.
“Their attitude was out of line with people’s thinking – the result reflected that dramatically.”
Renall said he held no grudge against Beyer for beating him by almost 300 votes.
In fact, he says he was the only one who shook her hand to congratulate her and believes the result was “a big tick for Carterton”.
“It showed we’re not the country hick town people thought we were,” he said.
Beyer said she took to her new role as councillor “like a duck to water”, despite still being treated like an outcast by her fellow councillors.
“Every year, the then-mayor used to have a Christmas function at his home for councillors and partners – I was not invited until two years had gone by.”
The mayor at the time Barry Keys told the Times-Age on Friday that if any council functions were held at his home, all councillors would have been invited.
Beyer said her ideas went beyond sewers, roading, and piping, and she became known for being outspoken, which could be the reason she was elected mayor of Carterton in 1995.
However, being the world’s first transsexual mayor came with international attention which continuously dredged up her “lurid” past as a sex worker.
“It was just everywhere,” she said.
“I got all this attention, but it was not quite the right attention.
“It was hard to maintain my dignity in the district with my past out there.”
It was at this stage she decided she was going to use her newly-acquired high profile status to bend the attention to benefit Carterton, working on projects such as planning to build the events centre and bringing the balloon festival to the region.
In 1998, Beyer received a call from former Labour party MP Sonja Davies, who had been following her work and encouraged her to sign up for the Labour party.
Before she knew it, she had been selected as the Labour party candidate for the Wairarapa electorate and was meeting with Helen Clark.
“Georgina was a forceful candidate,” Clark recalls.
“People liked her directness and honesty.”
Beyer knew she was on roll but still didn’t believe she would win the electorate over her former colleague Henry.
“This is a very hardcore right-wing National electorate, it was very unlikely I would win.”
But she knew it would give her another platform to raise issues plaguing Wairarapa, such as the much-needed hospital rebuild.
She got used to the groan of “here comes the Wairarapa” when she turned up to meetings.
“They knew they would get ear-bashed if we wanted something.”
Beyer won the electorate and became the world’s first transsexual MP in 1999.
Her political career wasn’t all smooth sailing though, with media still constantly referring to her as a “former prostitute” and labelling her a show pony.
“Election after election, being re-elected, there had to be something more than just being show pony and superficial,” she says today, laughing.
“There had to be some substance there, there had to be something that won the trust and support of the people who voted for me, besides all the bells and whistles.”
Former Wairarapa MP Wyatt Creech was deputy prime minister at the time Beyer was “surprisingly” elected into Parliament but said the fact she was transsexual “wasn’t such a big deal” for people in Wairarapa.
In fact, he said he was more surprised she never made it into cabinet.
“In Parliament, it’s more about what you say than what you are,” he said.
He said her work as the mayor of Carterton gained the region’s respect and her gender identity had no bearing on their vote.
“It was something outsiders commented on far more than people working with her.”
Clark also reflected upon Beyer’s point of difference and the impact she made during her time in Parliament.
“Over decades, Georgina showed tremendous courageousness in coming out and advocating for the human rights of transgender people.
“The much more inclusive New Zealand we know today owes a lot to the efforts of Georgina and others who were not afraid to come forward and advocate for embracing diversity.”
Beyer sometimes looks back at her time in the limelight as nothing exceptional, saying if she were “an ordinary everyday woman”, nothing she would have done “would have ever been remarkable”.
But after speaking with me for over an hour about all she had done to serve her community and country, she finally admitted her achievements were astonishing and the work she did was important – “whether I was a tranny or a woman”.
Since retiring from Parliament in 2004, Beyer has had her ups and downs, stating the “imaginary golden parliamentary pension” did not exist.
She now takes steroids daily, after receiving a new kidney last year – provided by a Carterton man.
But the drugs wreak havoc on her figure, she laughs.
Regardless, she is now happy and healthy, and living in Wellington, though her heart still firmly remains in Carterton.
“I’m forever grateful and loyal to Wairarapa people,” she said, through tears.
“They gave me life and I couldn’t thank them any more – I love them.”