New Zealand’s first openly gay MP pays tribute to his friend and colleague Georgina Beyer, who died on Monday aged 65.
I first met Georgina when she was the mayor of Carterton and was considering running as the Labour Party candidate for the National-held seat of Wairarapa. We hit it off instantly. I was entranced with her from that very first meeting at the 1998 Labour Party conference. She was outrageous, irreverent and larger than life. No one could spin a story like Georgina and these stories were always entertaining and often very irreverent. We formed a firm friendship that lasted throughout all of the ups and downs of our respective political and personal lives.
I always suspected that some in the Labour caucus and in the media didn’t seem to grasp the sheer astonishment of Georgina. Not only was she the world’s first transgender person ever elected as a mayor, and in Carterton of all places, but she was open about her former life as a sex worker and reformed addict. Not exactly the most promising CV for an aspiring candidate for the New Zealand parliament.
In 1999, Wairarapa was a National-held seat and had a very large rural component. Not exactly very promising Labour territory. TVNZ did a profile of the electorate just before the 1999 general election. The broadcaster Paul Henry, then young and good looking, contested the seat for National. Watching the programme with my partner Peter, one segment stood out. An older dairy farmer, profiled working in his milking shed, was asked who he was going to vote for. His response was telling, “I am voting for Georgina Beyer, she’s a good bloke!” Paul Henry came on immediately after that segment and, true to form, indulged in a bit of transphobia, proclaiming, “I was born a male and l am still proud to be a male.” It was mean and awkward. Peter turned to me and said “Paul Henry just blew his chances”. He was right – Georgina won the seat by 3,033 and in the 2002 election increased her majority to 6,372.
Today we have an openly gay minister of finance and a NZ Parliament with around 11 rainbow members of parliament. The British parliament has 45. An MP’s sexuality seems uncontroversial in many countries. That wasn’t the case when Georgina and l entered parliament.
I was the first openly gay MP when l “came out” in my maiden speech in 1994. All NZ media carried the story and much of that coverage was unsupportive. A flood of hateful letters and phone calls flooded into my local and parliamentary offices and sometimes to my home in Te Atatu. John Banks, then police minister, frequently referred to me in the debating chamber as “Christine” and the NZ Herald for several years referenced me as “the homosexual MP”. Georgina faced some of the same rough attention. In the House, Georgina confronted individuals who she thought were disrespectful to her. She once told the ultra-conservative National MP Brian Neesan, prone to staring at her with a disgusted look on his face, to “pull the hair clip out of your arse”. In Labour caucus meetings she was happy to confront conservative leaning Labour MPs like Geoff Braybrooke, John Tamihere, Clayton Cosgrove or Dover Samuels over any perceived slights or homophobic comments.
In 2002 l was elevated to cabinet. One of my portfolios was ethnic affairs minister. I had been in the job just a few days. It was Friday evening and l was about to head over to the North Shore from my home in Te Atatu to attend my very first “ethnic” function as the new minister. The ministerial car had arrived and suddenly a taxi turned into our small cul-de-sac and Georgina emerged. In typical Georgina style she had forgotten to tell me she was coming to stay and simply arrived. I told her l was heading out to an event with the Kurdish community, but she could make herself at home until l got back. She responded that she had never met a Kurd and asked if she could accompany me. How could l say no?
The bemused ministerial driver delivered us to the venue and a flurry of Kurdish men descended. Georgina towered above them, bejewelled and glittering. I introduced her as the Labour MP for Wairarapa but this was somehow either meaningless to our hosts or they were simply too overwhelmed by Georgina herself. She was introduced as Mrs Carter and all night the men kept telling me how beautiful my wife was. Georgina dined out on it for months.
Georgina had guts. When Destiny Church organised a huge march on parliament in 2004 to protest the civil union legislation, Georgina marched out of the building and personally confronted Brian Tamaki and his rabid henchman. It was a fiery scene. She challenged, sometimes not very politely, some Labour caucus members who were hostile to both the civil union and prostitution reform legislation. No one was ever in any doubt about Georgina’s views on any issue.
The fifth Labour government, led by Helen Clark, was a legislatively-active government. Many major policy initiatives were enacted from social and human rights issues like civil unions and prostitution reform to major economic packages like the NZ superannuation fund, Kiwibank, KiwiSaver etc. Georgina’s presence in government was important to Helen Clark. Yesterday the former PM was quoted in a Guardian article about Georgina’s death: “Her election speaks volumes about Georgina’s personal skills and dedication to community service and the district’s (Wairarapa) willingness to accept her on her merits without discrimination.” Like Helen, many of us in the Labour caucus felt Georgina’s presence sent a powerful message about the inclusiveness of New Zealand as a society. To show this to the world was something Georgina came to love.
In 2003, Georgina was sent to London to take part in the Commonwealth studies programme. This is an event organised by the British parliament that hosts new MPs from a range of different Commonwealth countries for a two-week residential programme. On day one of the programme, each of the Commonwealth participants is required to do a brief personal introduction. Well, those of us who knew Georgina well knew she loved nothing more than being on a stage and telling her own story. On that day, MPs from such places as Kenya, Jamaica, Malaysia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ghana heard all about her family’s rejection of her based on her sexuality, her period as a sex worker, her previous addictions and her reassignment surgery. I am confident they were totally overwhelmed.
I’m not saying she changed any attitudes there, but she did show that it’s possible for a transgender person to become a member of a national parliament. Something most of them could never have imagined before they heard Georgina’s presentation. In many developing countries, being an MP is about as high a status job as is possible. For years afterwards, other ministers from Commonwealth countries would approach me when l was representing NZ as a government minister and ask me about Georgina. I can truthfully say that globally the two most well-known NZ politicians between 1999 and 2008 were Helen Clark and Georgina Beyer. That’s no mean achievement for a kid from Hataitai, thrown out of home for crossdressing as a young teen. My friend, you were a remarkable person.