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Georgina Beyer: New futures for a consumate politician

Thu 28 Dec 2006 In: Features View at NDHA

Georgina Beyer This time it's for real. After two aborted decisions to leave Parliament, everyone's favourite tranny, Georgina Beyer, is turning her back on Parliament in February. Beyer was elected to the rural Carterton District Council in 1993 with a clear majority and the political career of the colourful country boy, showgirl, prostitute and actor never looked back. She was elected Mayor of Carterton in 1995 and again, with a hugely increased majority, in 1998 when everyone but the local sheepdogs must have voted for her. But Beyer stood down as Carterton's first citizen to contest the General Election as a Labour candidate for Wairarapa in 1999. She handily beat her opposition, and sailed back into Parliament with a 6000-plus majority in 2002. In 2005 she was back in the house as a Labour list MP. And that political career may not be over, Beyer, who will turn 50 next year, has a hankering to contest the next Wellington Mayoral election. BEING OPEN IN THE HOUSE OF SECRETS It's been a stellar rise for a woman who has always been frank about her past, a past which in many so-called progressive countries would have barred her from any form of public life altogether. And the level of homophobia directed at her has been minimal. Even in the snake-pit of Parliament's corridors she says she has been treated politely, to her face anyway. Our first openly gay elected MP, Chris Carter, was sniped at because of his sexuality and Beyer acknowledges that she has had a better time of it. "Chris certainly had some issues when he first came in, John Banks being one. I don't know if Tim Barnett had any issues, but I had none whatsoever. Nothing." That's not to say that politicians from all parts of the political spectrum are on 'kissy kissy' terms with Beyer. "People who maybe don't like me and what I represent and stand for are civil, but maintain a distance. But you can go back to any Hansard in my seven years in Parliament, and nobody's said anything derogatory against me personally - just politically." The first and last person to do that was the National candidate standing against me in 1999 who said “Oh yes, Georgina's had an interesting life, but there again so have I, and at the end of the day at least I'm still a man.” She left him for dust with a winning margin of over 3000 votes. "That one statement lost him the election. It was a politically naive thing to do." It also proved that playing to the redneck country vote was no longer a guaranteed campaign strategy in the New Zealand hinterland any more. Clearly suspecting we might be pressing for the dirt on viciously anti-gay MPs and their callow behaviour, Beyer laughs. "I'm sorry to be so boring! But I have experienced respect from every member of the house in my time there. Even those who might not have approved of my former life, or whatever. They were at least civil. Never blatantly and overtly rude or homophobic to me. What I don't hear doesn't matter, or what they might say behind closed doors... maybe in amongst my own caucus, who knows what people might say? But they would never say it to my face and they have certainly never articulated anything I did in the house." "No, I have enjoyed the respect of Parliament, which was a little unexpected from my perspective, because all I'd ever heard about was the hassles that Chris had heard about with the John Banks's of this world. But when I came along I think people were genuinely impressed at what I had achieved in being elected in the first place – they couldn't deny that the people who had elected me were not from ‘Gay Lynn', or ‘Gay Town.' It was the Wairarapa! And so I think people began to take down the superficiality, and because I was so upfront about being a transsexual and former sex-worker, they had to think for a minute – ‘oh she must have a bit of substance about her'." It's probably her total openness about her past careers and life experiences that has made Bayer immune from the sort of personal morality attacks that have dented other politicians. Her book, Change for the Better, published in the early nineties laid her life bare, "and even then I was already a well-known person on TV and stuff, so it's all been out there for an awfully long time now. My earliest media article would hail from 1978. So I've been in the media as a transsexual, warts and all, for a long time!" So she entered Parliament "with no bogeys hiding over my shoulder. It was all out there. It was most liberating, as I knew no one could throw any of that stuff back in my face. And boy has that come to pass, and how many members of Parliament since then have probably wished they'd done the same thing?" A RESPECTED, HARD WORKING MP Away from the public glare of the House and electioneering MPs spend much time on select committees, calling to account the government's many operational arms and gathering in information for Bills to go before the House. Talk to a few MPs who have served on Select Committees with Beyer and the overwhelming impression is that she has acquitted herself well in these often arcane investigations. She is momentarily taken aback by the compliment. "Nobody ever comes up and says those things to you, but I guess that view was endorsed by my being asked to chair [a number of] select committees in Parliament, social services, and all the issues that come with that." Another pause for self-conscious self reflection. "Yes, I would have to concede that I've acquitted myself adequately well, and that really was because of skills I picked up being a mayor. And really it was no different chairing a select committee in many respects than it was chairing a council, from the leadership point of view. The dynamics in Parliament and around a select committee are of course quite different. I have been fortunate in an MMP environment to have in the last three terms seen the changing nature of how MMP works at select committee. With diverse political views, we've still got to get the groundwork through, and we've still got to get the priority legislation though. It can be hard to keep those disparate views focussed on moving forward, and getting the work done on time and dispatched back to the house. I've only had a couple of bills where we've had a division, and it went back to the house unchanged. It's been good, in the select committees." SURPRISES ALONG THE LEARNING CURVE If she is surprised at the compliments paid to her by fellow MPs, were there any other surprises on becoming an MP? "The sheer workload. The demands. The intense scrutiny, and the public person that you become. The public property you become as a member of Parliament." Then there's the range of knowledge she has needed to accumulate on "a vast number" of subjects, "because constituents expect you're the font of all knowledge on anything and everything, and of course one isn't. So I soon had to learn just to stick to the things I was confidant about, and bone up on the things I wasn't." The discipline required of a successful MP was another surprise. "The time spent in the house, or at Parliament. And getting leave, having to get permission to leave the Parliament grounds, for God's sake, and all of those things." Beyer says she also appreciated more subtle unexpected aspects of an MPs life. "I guess the nature of people you meet, forums you are part of, the invitations you receive – the extraordinary amount of that sort of stuff." And then there has been the opportunity to go overseas, to represent the country and, by default, gay and transgender people. "To speak in international forums, whether it be on human rights stuff, gender stuff, HIV and AIDS stuff... all of those things." Like it or lump it, Beyer has been one of a small, though gradually increasing, band of out glbt MPs, and has therefore become one of our community's default spokespeople. "I didn't feel entirely comfortable being seen to purport to be a representative of the gay community. I'm a transsexual, so the gay community might have issues about me speaking on a gay man's behalf, or a gay woman's behalf. At the end of the day, if you scrutinise what I did stand up for, and what I stood against, they were matters of human rights – basic human decency and equality, and that applies to us all." "So it was not difficult, and the fact that I am a member of the gay community just added that much more strength to what I had to say from that perspective. First of all there are so few of us – well more of us than there ever have been – six of us in the Parliament I'm in, five of us in the Labour party, but I think a great deal was expected of any out MP's that were going into Parliament. A little less so now. Chris [Carter] and Tim [Barnett] particularly. Tim significantly has been the voice… and the fact that the Labour party has a Rainbow sector of a not inconsiderable amount of influence. And to have seen five out MP's in the last Parliament, and also to have policy enacted into Acts of Parliament, means that the voice doesn't lie in one person. It actually lies in those of us who are obligated to the community in there, but also the fact that I was part of a party that has given us out liberation since the 1980's." LABOUR'S 'GAY MAFIA' It's predictable that conservative politicos whine about the undue influence of glbt MPs, the strength of Rainbow Labour, and the slyly-alluded to so-called 'gay and lesbian mafia' that sometimes works closely with Prime Minister Helen Clark. Is there undue glbt influence in the Beehive? "Well chance would be a fine thing! No no no, I will dispute that immediately!" "The Rainbow sector has earned it's position in the Labour party, like any other sector in the party – the women's sector, the union sector, the disabled sector, the Kirk sector of the party, the Pacific Islands sector – they all earned their positions in the party structure. No easy gravy-train for us. And that needs to be respected. The party organisation has to pass policy by awareness at conferences, and hopefully those will come into law when one is in Government. No special faction favours are done there, you have to argue it out on the floor, you had to convince the people. Put aside the high-profile and out members of Parliament – the queer members of Parliament, and actually look at those members of our community who are part of the Rainbow sector, or our friends and allies… we put in a damned hard graft to get our policies through, and eventually once we were in Government, into legislation." Other groups, here and abroad, could learn from glbt people's involvement in New Zealand politics, says Bayer. "I would suggest that there are many other sectors of the community that should look at that example of how a minority interest can be politically proactive – and deliver." In fact, "there are countries overseas that are looking – like Australia even – who would definitely like, as far as the queer community is concerned, to have a similar kind of thing. We wouldn't have achieved what we've achieved here unless we'd had a social justice type party like Labour, that believes in diversity and inclusion and believes that that should be represented in the membership of not just the party but the caucus. And it does, in many respects reflect that. And we're part of that. I think it's a wonderful development." MILESTONES OF ACHIEVEMENT Looking back, Beyer chalks up her local body and general election Wairarapa victories as some of her main political achievements. "Being elected by what was considered a right-wing rural electorate, of a conservative nature, that's a very positive reflection on our democracy... getting elected, with no favours, just like anyone else." Serving the people of the Wairarapa, "they were my priority for six years," is something she looks back on with obvious pride. Her national and international visibility as an elected transexual politician is another achievement she rates highly: "The significance of my world-first status, on both counts as a mayor and as an MP. And obviously there's the involvement in the passing of the Civil Unions Bill, and Prostitution Reform." But she's "slightly less enamoured" by the shelving of her Gender Identity Bill. "That never became an Act but still achieved the same result," when the Attorney General went on record as deciding that existing human rights legislation was sufficient to cover gender as well as sexuality. So her Bill never made it to Parliament. "Everyone seems to prefer not to see it that way'" she sighs. THE 'SCREAMING BANSHEE' TAKES ON THE BLACKSHIRTS If, in the course of time, Beyer is remembered for just one thing during her time as MP it may be her much-televised outburst at the Destiny Church Enough is Enough rally on Parliament when she harangued the angrily anti-glbt Tamaki mob with some of their own medicine. She agrees, though "I qualify that by saying Destiny had a sound system the Rolling Stones would have been proud of, I just had my voice, so that's why I looked like a screaming banshee!" Though there was a vocal contingent of pro-glbt, anti-bigotry protesters at the event, it was Beyer's outburst on the steps of Parliament that came to represent the articulate passion the rally came up against. One individual taking on the blackshirted thugs. Did that take courage? "No, not at all. That was deeply-felt passion for what I was experiencing at the time of that march. I had no idea what was about to descend upon us as far as the actual protest and the presentation of it was concerned. And then to have it reinforced with this rhetoric which was totally dehumanising of us. And then their whole Nazi-like approach to presenting themselves. I was struck by anger and rage and thought ‘no, you're not going to send me back to the corridors of shame that I'd once felt'. This was not New Zealand. I just got very emotional." "When they [raised their arms in black-power-like gestures] and thousands of them are going ‘enough is enough' and Tamaki's looking at me and pointing at me on those bloody steps – I was angry and I was outraged and so I did what I did and it seemed to articulate what certainly the queer community was feeling, but what most normal, fair-minded New Zealanders were feeling too." Beyer says she was criticised for being "‘an emotional queen' making a drama and all this sort of thing," but she's glad she had the following night to go head-to-head with Tamaki on TV in a more controlled environment. "The passion was still there then, but in the context of fronting up on prime time TV to face-off against a political nemesis – someone who was against everything I represented and everything our community represented, I needed to be cool, calm, concise, right on top of it, not barely pausing to take a breath in reacting to anything he might say." Other than by the Christian right, it was generally judged that Beyer acquitted herself well as a forthright and intelligent debater that night, whilst Tamaki looked even more like a ranting, sleazy, religious cult leader. What was the vibe, sitting inches away from a man who publicly declaims nearly everyting Beyer is and stands for? "Well, he's a person, like anybody else. The vibe? Well I never have a problem meeting anybody, and even if I know I'm going to go into a meeting with a confrontational situation like that, I know how to be civil, and I knew darn well that I wasn't about to be letting him get away with anything. I wasn't nervous, I wasn't going to be shying away from stating what I thought – in fact everything that he said just inspired me even further. Every time he said 'no' to this and 'no' to that, I said 'yes yes yes' and why not? Challenging, I suppose." Not one to present pre-prepared speeches in Parliament or anywhere else for that matter, Beyer says I didn't need to have "screeds of research," for that confrontation. She winged it. "I totally reacted to him in a way that was intelligent, and purely from a human rights perspective. It was very difficult for him to argue with that, while he was proporting all sorts of things on that programme." She'd been eye to eye with Tamaki before. "The first time I ever met him was on the Willie Jackson TV show. It was about Civil Unions. [Tamaki] looked at me straight in the eye and outright said ‘You're unnatural, you're abnormal, you're an abomination.' You wanna see how I reacted on that show! I was taken aback! Shocked! And just came back saying ‘I am not! Excuse me!'… and sort of defended myself and my integrity. I might have let that one go, or let it stand, but you can't. You've got to stamp on that, straight away. They just can't even think they got away with it." Of course, Tamaki isn't the only one who's declaimed Beyer publicly. Her detractors have been legion, most notoriously the recently convicted pedophile rapist and one-time leader of the now defunct Christian Heritage Party, Grahame Capill. Beyer allows herself a smug smile. "Well now there's a man, who in the 1990s held me up in front of the nation as being a moral degenerate – I was the mayor of Carterton at the time… and at the very time that he was telling me in front of the nation that that's what I was all about, he was committing his crimes. So yes, how the worm turns!" WELLINGTON: A SERIOUS PROPOSITION? Looking forward, is our most glamorous glbt MP serious about taking a tilt at the Wellington mayoralty? "Quite! I'm going to consider it in about the middle of next year. I'll focus more on it and do some groundwork.... The elections aren't until October next year." She likes local government and feels that, despite being born in Taranaki, Wellington is in many ways her hometown. "I come with all the prerequisites as far as being able to do the job is concerned," she says. "I'd be a fantastic cheerleader, and the nation would know who the mayor of Wellington was! Before even becoming it! I think the city could do with some more 'out there' cheerleading. But I can't form exactly what my platforms would be on that, I don't even want to think of that yet, but the way that it's got to go now is that I have flown a flag, the reaction to date has been superbly wonderful I have to say, and very encouraging." Will she stand as an independent candidate? "Yes, I always believe mayors should stand as independents." She believes she needs to read the political landscape "and I need people to get over the ‘sensational' thought that Georgina might be mayor and then think more seriously about it, because they need to be certain – not just a sentimental ‘oh, wouldn't that be wonderful?' It has to have substance." If she stands for the mayoralty she will be committed to seeing the role through at least two terms, by which time she'll be pushing 60 years old. "I have to think personal things like it's a minimum commitment of six years for me – that's quite a big stretch after I've just been fourteen years in politics. I had always said when I first entered local government that I'd probably want to be out of this game by 50. But Parliament came along and interrupted. So the decisions about Wellington really rely more on my personal feelings." But personal feelings aside, Beyer is confident she could do the job well and with vigour. "I know I could do the job very well for Wellington as a mayor – I'd certainly bring the council itself into bloody line, that's for sure! Too much time and money get wasted on polarised political views, whereas my skills as a select committee chair for two terms are going to come in very handy. I'll be making sure that the real grunt work of council gets done, rather than posturing and grandstanding on a political point – those things are costing people a fortune! It'll be an interesting challenge." After a stump speech like that, even if only to a gay reporter, it seems a forgone conclusion that the political career of Georgina Beyer has a while to run yet. Jay Bennie - 28th December 2006    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Thursday, 28th December 2006 - 12:00pm

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