By Moana Maniapoto
"She pushed us on our perceptions and our prejudices and she made us look at ourselves."
Georgina Beyer, politician and consummate performer. A gifted communicator and passionate advocate for the underdog - no matter who, no matter what. A former radio host, actor, drag queen and sex worker, Beyer made history as the first openly transgender mayor - and then a member of parliament - in the world.
Te Ao with Moana dedicated a full second episode to the 65-year-old (Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Porou) who passed away on March 6, after a long struggle with kidney failure.
Filmed from both a cocktail bar in Cuba Street and the Matangireia Room at Parliament, those gathered in both spaces celebrated her empathy but also the way she used plain language and quick wit to win over the public.
Yet, the woman who smoked up a storm and held court with ease was also a loner. The day after her death, and in accordance with her wishes, a final service was conducted at Pipitea Marae before her cremation. Beyer was surrounded by 20 close friends.
Georgina Beyer. Source: File
Ron Mark, (Mayor of Carterton and a former MP himself) was raised in rural Wairarapa during the ‘50s with all the “conservatism it brings.”
“You grow with these views and then you're confronted with someone who's as smart, as bright, as vibrant, as energetic and powerful as that. You go - well, I guess I'm a bit of a dick, you know? Time to grow up.”
He described Beyer as fierce.
“She pushed us on our perceptions and our prejudices and she made us look at ourselves.”
Beyer championed economic development and community engagement, during her time in the mayoralty.
Wairarapa Labour MP Kieran McAnulty is the minister for emergency management. He had known Beyer all his life. She was his babysitter and he vividly recalls people continually stopping her in the street for a chat.
“Rural people take you as you come. So if you're a bit of a dick to them, they won't really like it. If you're a good person, they don't really care what you've done before then because, if you've treated them well, they'll give you a fair crack. And that's sort of what happened with Georgina.”
Georgina Beyer made history as Carterton’s first Māori, transgender and woman mayor. Source: File
In 1999, Beyer made history as Carterton’s first Māori, transgender and woman mayor – with a sharp tongue and great sense of humour. McAnulty recalled a candidate debate where Beyer’s legendary wit brought the house down.
“Someone yells out, 'Where's your penis?' She says, ‘It's on a jar on the mantlepiece. Where's yours?’ And the place just cracked up, they just absolutely lost it. And this guy was humiliated and no one ever said a thing again.”
McAnulty and seven other MPs were interviewed in Parliament’s Matangireia Room. Tāmati Coffey and Elizabeth Kerekere had been among the handful of attendees at Beyer’s funeral. A tearful Kerekere described Beyer as a “rangatira”, then chuckled - “she left me with a list of jobs.”
Moana interviews Malcolm Vaughan and Scott Kennedy at S&M Cocktail & Lounger Bar. Source: File
Dame Catherine Healy, who first met Georgina in the late 1990s during a push for prostitution law reform, recalls how things took a surprising turn in 2003 after Beyer was lobbied by an American fundamentalist.
“She was great for us in so many ways, and then she wasn't, and we had to pull her back in. So when it came to the second reading of the Prostitution Reform Act, we were holding our breath because we had heard that Georgina was going to vote against it.”
Finance Minister Grant Robertson described the House on “a knife edge. We didn't know if it was going to pass. And she gave the most electric speech I've ever seen in Parliament. It was the pure, raw, authentic emotion of that moment, I believe, which put that bill through. It passed 60 to 59 with one abstention.”
In her own words, Beyer told Parliament: "It would be nice to have known that, instead of having to deal out the justice myself afterwards to that person, I may have been able to approach the authorities - the police in this case - and say I was raped. And yes, I'm a prostitute. And no, it was not right that I should have been raped because I said no."
Georgina Beyer delivers her speech during the second reading of the Prostitution Reform Act in parliament. Source: File
During the Te Ao with Moana special, MPs from across the House shared their memories of Beyer, with National deputy leader Nicola Willis recalling one Pride gathering.
“There was some suggestion that I might not get to speak because I was just the National rep. She barged two shoulders in and she said, ‘We do better as a community when we have supporters on all sides of Parliament. So you'll let Nicola speak.’ And she got up, she went on that stage and she gave me the most gracious introduction.”
Māori Development and Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson entered Parliament in 1999 - at the same time as Beyer - but as an Alliance MP.
“A lot of people would have thought she would have been as liberal as anything. But Georgie wasn't at times. She was quite a conservative. And my understanding watching her is she used to irritate a number of her colleagues because of these contrary views. What I think is the shame was with Georgie is that she didn't become a minister.”
In his former television role hosting the show Eye to Eye (TVNZ), Jackson brought Brian Tamaki (who described Beyer as an embodiment of the "spirit of perversion") and Georgina Beyer together in a fiery debate. It wasn’t long after Tamaki and his followers had marched in protest outside Parliament, against the Civil Union Act. Beyer called them out on the forecourt.
"I'm going to come and look at each and every one of you, I don't mind at all. How dare you use the cloak of Christianity when you are imparting to your children, prejudice and discrimination toward people like me."
She challenged Tamaki again on Eye to Eye.
"Brian Tamaki has said some rather awful things about me on his television show. And I'd like to give him the opportunity now to apologise to me if he feels that that is something he could do. Because they were hurtful, Brian."
Beyer resigned from Parliament in 2007 and, in an interview with the NZ Herald, described how the foreshore and seabed furore was particularly confronting for her as a Māori representing a general seat.
"They've all been saying I've got to put my personal feelings aside and the fact that I'm a Maori aside."
Sheree Freeman met Beyer in 2012. During a road trip to promote Internet-Mana, Freeman drove her friend around the South Island.
“She was in the back of the car hooking up her dialysis … we had lots of those liquid boxes to carry around with us, in and out of hotels. I think we got as far as Queenstown and she threw in the towel, had a wobbly on TV, told them she didn't want to do it anymore and left me with the car. I carried on.”
There were plenty of chuckles as those gathered at S&M Cocktail Bar recalled both Beyer’s temper and aversion to technology. She famously called her laptop a “box” and according to her former parliamentary executive assistant Karen Gibson “never opened it.”
Georgina Beyer performed alongside others as a showgirl. Source: File
Chanel Hati and Renee Paul met Beyer around 1979, when they were stripping and performing in a show called Playgirls. While Chanel was impressed with Beyer’s political side she celebrated her “queeny side, which was fun and loving.” She also acknowledged Carmen Rupe for laying down “the pathway for Georgina to enter political spaces.”
Cultural diversity advisor Selena Pirika agreed.
“I don't think that she or Carmen are any different to Whina Cooper or to Mira Szazy because, in their own light, they have led our people forward. And I think it’s really important that their history should be told, their history should be recognised and they should be sung about like at places like Te Matatini.”
In 2017, Beyer spoke to the prestigious Oxford University Union, becoming the first Māori to do so. In 2020, she was a recipient of New Zealand Order of Merit for services to LGBTIQA+ rights.
A public memorial service for Georgina Beyer is expected to be held in coming weeks.
Watch Te Ao with Moana, Whakaata Māori Monday 8pm