Georgina Beyer's life is so vivid and surreal that it would make one say 'only in America'—except it happened in New Zealand.
A Maori who was born biologically male, Beyer ( in his 20s ) became a part of the Wellington gay nightclub scene as a singer and drag-queen performer, and then a prostitute. In 1984, the then-27-year-old Beyer had sexual-reassignment surgery and forged a successful career as a film and television actress in Auckland. Beyer then shifted from entertainment to politics, becoming mayor of Carterton and, eventually, a member of Parliament. She retired from the political arena last year.
Beyer is one of the icons selected this year by Equality Forum for GLBT History Month. In an e-mail interview with Windy City Times, Beyer discussed everything from a traumatic rape to her advice to young trans individuals.
Windy City Times: When did you first realize that you were trapped in the wrong body?
Georgina Beyer: I first displayed transgender tendencies at 4 or 5, but I didn't realize my gender dysphoria until late puberty, i.e., 13-15 years of age.
WCT: You were attacked and raped in Australia in the late 1970s. You have said this horrific event was a defining moment for you—why is that?
GB: After I recovered from the ordeal of being gang-raped by four men in Sydney, Australia, I felt angered by the injustice of it all; it seemed to reinforce the 'scum-of-the-earth' attitude that society seemed to have toward people like me. I felt I had no rights to charge the rapists, and even if I did, I wondered how seriously would a sex-worker tranny from New Zealand would be taken. I felt worthless enough to do nothing at the time.
Later, the experience defined for me that no person should ever have to feel that worthless and helpless—that hate crime is wrong and that I will prove my worth as a human being who happens to be transsexual.
WCT: You were elected mayor of Carterton—listed as conservative—in 1995 and 1998. How did you manage to defy the odds and be elected in a conservative area?
GB: My mayoralty happened, despite the conservative nature of my constituents, because I was upfront and honest about myself, had ability and was trusted.
WCT: On a related note, you've said that other members of Parliament reacted in a 'bland' manner when you were first elected. Does this speak to New Zealand's liberal attitude?
GB: If I was treated in a bland manner by MPs [ members of Parliament ] when I got to Parliament, I think it was less to do with a liberal attitude and more to do with the surprise of my legitimate election and that would be an aberration—a one-term wonder.
WCT: Do the Maori [ the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand ] have a specific attitude toward GLBT people?
GB: The Maori have an inclusive attitude in the family sense, but colonization and Christianity introduced a moral code that did not favor homosexually or being gender-different.
WCT: You retired from Parliament last year to face new challenges. What are those challenges?
GB: After almost eight years in Parliament, I needed to leave for my own well-being. For me, it's been a bittersweet experience. My new challenges are to find myself again and to get a decent-paying job.
WCT: What are you most proud of accomplishing during your political career?
GB: I am proud of being elected legitimately by my constituents, of delivering on my campaign pledges to them and being the first transsexual in the world to be elected mayor and a member of Parliament—and all the positives, in terms of human rights, that result from that. If one person's life has been inspired by my success or offered a window of hope then I am proud, but humbled.
WCT: What are the biggest GLBT-related obstacles remaining in New Zealand?
GB: Law is relatively easy to change, in contrast to social attitude, so a challenge still exists to keep working on that. However, New Zealand is a much better place for the LGBT community than many other countries in the world. We have a more liberal environment, and much has been achieved; however, more can be done with items such as hate-crime legislation, gender identity, health, education, trans-appropriate social-service access and so on.
WCT: I have to ask about the 2002 documentary Georgie Girl [ based on Beyer's life ] . Do you remember your reaction after you first saw it?
GB: I was delighted and humbled by Georgie Girl.
WCT: What does it mean to you to be selected as a GLBT icon—and to make history?
GB: To be selected as a GLBT icon is awesome and humbling. It has also helped to restore faith in myself and that the trials and tribulations were a worthwhile endeavor.
WCT: Do you have any advice to young trans individuals—or for those who feel they are trapped in the wrong bodies?
GB: Be who you are. Don't live a lie. Maintain your self-respect in the face of adversity and realize that you are not alone. Seek help when needed and know that all people have a right to be positive contributors to society; to strive to fulfill our potential; and be treated with respect and dignity.
WCT: Your life is intriguing, to say the least. What has been the most surreal part of it?
GB: The most surreal part of my life has been 14 years in politics.
WCT: Do you have any GLBT icons?
GB: No. I have no particular GLBT icons because all who have given or achieved on our behalf are worthy of the recognition, including those who came before us and the ones whose voices were never heard.
GLBT History Month highlights annually the achievements of 31 gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender Icons—one each day—with a free video, bio, bibliography, images and other resources. Visit www.glbthistorymonth.com .