4 min

Phenomenal woman

New Zealand's Georgina Beyer

Credit: Rhoma Spencer

From soap star to sex worker to member of parliament, New Zealand’s Georgina Beyer has seen it all.

“I am in the longest running show in town at the moment, darling,” jokes Beyer, in an interview during her recent visit to Toronto. Beyer was in town last month at the invitation of Native Women In The Arts. The visit coincided with the screening of Georgie Girl, a documentary of Beyer’s life, as part of the ImagineNative Film And Media Arts Festival.

Born George Bertrand, Beyer grew up in Taranaki, New Zealand on a farm with his grandmother. The young Beyer was an “introverted, shy boy who did not quite fitted in.” By the time he was 12 his girlish ways were attracting attention.

While traditionally Maori culture is accepting of queers, the influence of Christianity has made it more difficult for some Maori to accept the “Takatapahis,” the Maori term for queer individuals. But Beyer notes that this has changed somewhat during her lifetime; in the last 30 years there has been “Kohunga Reo” – a renaissance of Maori culture.

A talented actor, Beyer was starring on the popular New Zealand soap opera Shortland Street by the age of 16. He was also making nocturnal appearances on the drag circuit and was soon called in by the soap’s producers and told to give it up. But the teenaged star refused to stop performing in drag, choosing instead to walk away from his lucrative TV career.

It was a difficult period for Beyer. The money that he was used to as a television actor was no longer coming in and he turned to prostitution for economic relief. Soon, he was “cracking it” on the streets, Kiwi-talk for turning tricks. At one point Beyer even attempted suicide after being gang-raped by four men.

A combination of all this led to an epiphany. By 1984 Beyer had a sex change operation and Georgina was born.

“The real me came forward,” says Beyer. “I sure as hell I did not want to be a burden to the state, but society leaves you with very little choice. It’s so easy to get into the sex industry and so hard to get out, but I managed to climb out and regain my self esteem.”

In 1985 Beyer moved to Auckland where a chance meeting with an independent film producer resulted in her starring in an episode of the same soap opera she once appeared in as a male. According to Beyer, it was a groundbreaking moment because it gave a human face to trans people at a time when the country was in the midst of repealing archaic anti-queer laws. The episode garnered six nominations in New Zealand’s equivalent to Canada’s Gemini Awards, including a best actress nomination for Beyer.

She soon found herself working in the small community of Carterton as a drama tutor through a government-funded arts program where she used drama to create awareness of social issues. It wasn’t long before Beyer had won the hearts of the rural population after an impassioned encounter with the community council on behalf of the townsfolk. This action demonstrated to her loyal drama students and their families her genuine interest in their welfare. Hints were made that she would be a good choice of candidate for an upcoming municipal election.

“A candy what? What does a candidate do?” she recalls asking. Beyer accepted the nomination and subsequently lost the election by 10 votes to a local parson. When the cleric was appointed to another community before the end of his political term, Beyer won the by-election by a 48 percent margin against four other candidates. Her popularity made her an easy candidate for the mayor; she won by a 90 percent margin to become Carterton’s first female mayor.

Beyer says that being trans has never been an issue for her in her political career, nor was it relevant to her electorate. Her life history is no secret.

“Judge me on my ability to do my job, not on the superficiality of my transsexualism. Frankly everyone knows about it. There is nothing more to tell,” maintains Beyer, though she admits headlines after her election identifying her as a former prostitute, former stripper and transsexual sometimes got to her. “It was frustrating at times,” she says, adding that she was even accused by other transsexuals of being a fraud until she produced papers to prove she had had sex reassignment surgery.

Beyer believes her political success was assisted by New Zealanders’ fixation with the underdogs of society, but adds that what matters most to her is “being good at what you do and contributing to society.”

A proponent of inclusive democracy, Beyer admits she doesn’t always vote the way her electorate might want. “I am a bit of a rebel in some ways,” she says. For example, she supported the recent bill to decriminalize prostitution in New Zealand. After her own experiences with sex work, the issue held significant resonance for her. “I supported this bill on behalf of the many prostitutes who did not live past 20 years old.”

Now 47 years old, Beyer is looking forward to the future. She wants to continue humanitarian work for the queer and trans communities around the world once her term in office is completed. She is also considering trying her hand at writing and directing.

Beyer hopes to soon be able to address her personal and emotional needs. As yet, love and romance have eluded this phenomenal woman.

“In some ways I have gotten selfish,” she confesses. “Years in the sex industry have toughened me and now nobody tells me what to do.” She says part of the problem is that she no longer recognizes it when a signal of interest is coming her way.

But she’s quick to add that she hasn’t been celibate. “I do have sex, but not in New Zealand.

“I don’t want some guy running off to the press saying, ‘I had sex with Georgina Beyer.'”

* Rhoma Spencer is an actor, director and broadcast journalist from Trinidad And Tobago. She is also the artistic director of the newly formed Theatre Archipelago.