Wellington (Women’s Feature Service) – A true force of nature – that’s how Georgina Beyer is popularly known in her country, New Zealand. Having braved criticism, discrimination and stereotypes to become the first openly transsexual Mayor in 1995 and then Member of Parliament (MP) in 2000, she has indeed paved a new path for the LGBT community across the globe.
Born a Maori, an indigenous New Zealand tribe, Beyer spent most of her youth working to become a recognised actor. After leaving school at 16, much against her mother’s wishes, she worked as a performer, entertainer and also sex worker. Around the 1980s she once again defied all social diktat to get a sex reassignment surgery because she strongly felt
“like a girl trapped in a boy’s body”.
This was followed by a successful career as a film and television actress in Auckland. Beyer even won the prestigious G.O.F.T.A. award, one of the most well-known accolades for film and television actors. Of course, all along she was conscious that this was just the beginning of her journey, and so she continued to push the envelope in a bid to affect change.
Filled with conviction to better the lives of rural children, who, like her, were growing up in exclusion, Beyer decided to move to Carterton, a farming area in the Wairarapa region, where she worked as a radio host and social worker. It was due to her concerted activism that she was eventually elected as the Mayor twice and later went on to make her own place in national politics. Her legacy in Parliament includes a long and powerful list of legislative reforms. Step by step, she has worked with various marginalised and vulnerable groups, starting with indigenous people, who contributed to drafting one of the first bills for equitable natural resource management. Beyer then played a key role in the passage of the Prostitution Law Reform in 2003, guaranteeing protection for minors and health services for all sex workers. Another concern on her agenda, considered a first-of-its-kind, was to get lawmakers on-board to sign into force a statement making gender identity protection explicit under New Zealand’s human rights bill, as well as advocating for the Civil Union bill, which was passed towards the end of her term as an MP in 2007.
Despite being a busy political leader, Beyer has taken the time out to document her life as a politician and famed actor, in her autobiography, ‘A Change for the Better’, published in 1999. In this one-on-one, she talks about how it felt to change social perceptions, confront stereotypical attitude, and rise to the top when most people were telling her it was impossible.
Q: What have been the greatest challenges that you have had to overcome to be in politics?
A: The conservative nature of the electorate would be the first thing. A person of my colourful past probably wasn’t considered to be the right fit for the district.
There were people in the administration who didn’t want to see me there.
People thought it wouldn’t happen, but it did. And that was that. For this very colourful character to waltz into town and become a part of politics was quite something.
The media was keenly interested in my past. Former sex worker, former drag queen, and they often didn’t get their terms right. The media saw the Mayoral elections for me as a sideshow in Carterton. There is a transsexual. It is not as if I was hiding that stuff, at all, ever. I would never let being a transsexual define me in being a functioning human being.
Some people have an attitude, we chose this lifestyle, and now we have these tragic lives. That’s not right at all. I had difficulties in my life early on and I still do sometimes. I chose to be true to myself, which [many a time] didn’t gel with societies’ mores. I didn’t comply with their conventions. That’s [however] my experience, not everyone’s experience. All of those obstacles I encountered in becoming the person that I am prepared me for politics. I had transferable skills. You are all out there soliciting for votes, what is the difference between that and soliciting for a client? There is no difference between what [I was] doing as a politician and what I used to do!
Q: What have been the significant factors that have brought you where you are today?
I worked on the Resource Management Act, consulting with local Māori [people] on behalf of the government for the first time in nearly 100 years.
After some meetings and debates, we adopted that policy. That sort of helped to establish me. It broke down barriers and brought people closer together. It dissolved some of the issues they had with me. Once they got to know me, this transcended any phobic attitude people may have had about me. The constituency was delighted with the breath of fresh air.
People saw me as a little bit exotic, giving the old establishment a run for their money.
Q: Did your identity as a woman have an impact on your career?
A: I was sometimes sidelined and excluded from the core of decision-making. Some had a trans-phobic attitude. It was hard to get over those barriers. But I held on to the conviction that if you have an issue with this [my identity], not me, I am fine with that. I want to get on with it.
Q: What do you believe has been your greatest contribution to society so far?
A: On the one hand, I am pleased with the work I have done for my constituents as a Mayor and an MP. It is not an easy thing to do, keeping up with all of the things you said you would do but I did it. I went into this public life to prove a point.
I objected to all the barriers that were placed before a person like me, as I am a fully functioning member of society who wanted to fulfil my own potential.
I decided that I am not going to back down on that because of peoples’ mores about my trans-sexuality. I had been legitimately elected without any strings being pulled and I have hoped it has inspired others like me around the world.
Apart from that, I have also drafted part of the human rights chapter of the Constitution on the “third sex” in Nepal, and I am proud of that. I [have truly] proved that things can be done against the odds.
Q: What advice would you like to give young women?
A: Have respect for yourselves and love yourselves no matter what your differences might be. Continue to be inspired to achieve in whatever arena you feel comfortable in and are passionate about. Be considerate of others.
It is important that we don’t shut the door behind us. We should hold the door open to bring others through.
(This article is part of U.N. Women’s Empowering Women — Empowering Humanity: Picture It! campaign in the lead-up to Beijing+20.)