Georgina Beyer has just been invited to address both the Oxford and Cambridge University Unions in the United Kingdom - a significant achievement. On the eve of the trip, David Herkt talks to her about her life, opinions, her recent illness and her revealing encounter with Chelsea Manning.

"Welcome to all of you to this amazing evening … an evening with Chelsea Manning," announced Georgina Beyer, former MP for Wairarapa and the world's first transsexual to be elected to government office.

It was an event that would once have been inconceivable. A transgendered New Zealand political and media personality, once a sex worker, chairing an event at the three-levelled Q Theatre in Auckland, which showcased another trans woman, an ex-United States Army officer and convicted whistle-blower.

Then the petite blonde American activist, Chelsea Manning – the former intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning – strode out from the wings. She wore a black miniskirt and short Doc Marten boots.

Advertisement

"It isn't a role I have ever played before and I'm no journalist," Beyer said later. "It was a great opportunity to meet someone as highly controversial as she has been in recent times. I thought in general the evening went quite well, though some people were disgruntled."

It was clear that Manning's New Zealand audience were expecting a story of espionage and drama, exposing American secrets like the Five Eyes network. After all, Manning had passed on more than 750,000 classified military and diplomatic documents to Wikileaks.
Instead, Manning gave her Auckland audience the story of a transgendered woman's childhood, adolescence, her army enlistment, eventual political radicalisation, and her gender change.

"What she did cover about the Iraq matter was some of her what I thought quite naive actions," commented Beyer. "She didn't consider that there would be any particular consequence and certainly not as dramatic as it turned out to be.

"It was like she had been working a part as an Intelligence analyst for the US military. I can only liken it to the fact that she seemed to be playing a video game and there was some sort of detachment, a bit like people who fly those drones that cause such destruction - but they, themselves, work in another country.

"Then she arrived in Iraq and saw the human face behind some of the information that had come before her. It seemed to have some sort of effect on her, in the sense: 'Someone has got to know about this.'"

Following her Wikileaks document release, Manning was charged with a number of offences, including "aiding the enemy", which could have resulted in the death penalty. She was sentenced to 35 years that, eight years later, was commuted by President Barack Obama as one of the final acts of his Presidency.

"I found her to be a highly intelligent person – with an underlay of anger," Beyer continued. "There is no denying that what she went through with imprisonment and solitary confinement was pretty horrendous.

"The interesting thing was that after the trial and court martial, it came to the point where she thought, 'This is going to be my home for the next 35 years at least, so I'll make it as much of a home as I can and fulfil my desire to transition gender.'

"I would say that she is a new generation of trans activist and has become a huge global role-model in that sense," Beyer adds. "My concerns about some of that is that I have no problem with you fighting in your corner but you find that [she] and other modern-day trans activists can be quite adversarial in their demands."

"I don't mind the passion, but I think the message – particularly if you are going to make major changes law-wise – is to bring the public along with you, rather than berating people who might otherwise be open-minded enough to support what you are wanting to achieve."

Beyer is now 60 and no stranger to passion and struggle, including a recent battle with illness. Hers is the story of a boy who became a woman who became a warrior.

"I didn't have a deprived upbringing," she reflects. "I took more positive out of it than negative, I suppose. There were issues about disciplining the girl out of me – or the effeminate out of me – at a certain point in childhood, but I don't think that is at all unusual for people from our 'Rainbow Community'."

Because of her mother's marriages and divorces, Beyer was educated for a period at the private Wellesley College before going to a state school in Papatoetoe in Auckland.

Eventually she returned to Wellington, which was then in its heyday as the transgender capital of New Zealand. The iconic transsexual, Carmen Rupe, with her bouffant hairstyle, owned Carmen's Coffee Lounge, Carmen's Balcony nightclub, and operated several brothels, all staffed by transgendered women.

"Because of my transitioning at that time and the lack of social compassion, it forced you to live in this 'twilight world'. Among 'people of the streets', if you like, there was an odd bond because we were all enduring the same sort of social exclusion.

"I guess I got a bit more forceful and assured about who and what I am - and nothing was going to alter my path to achieve what I needed to achieve in becoming a woman."

After a stint in Auckland, where she performed in the Alfie's nightclub's Bloomer's Revue, she returned again to Wellington. A move to Carterton would see her elected to the council and she became the world's first transgendered mayor in 1995.

"I was quoted once as saying this was the stallion that became a gelding and now she's a mare," she would say in her parliamentary maiden speech after her election as MP in 1999. "I suppose I do have to say that I have now found myself to be a member. So I have come full circle, so to speak."

Beyer contemplated leaving after her first term. She already preferred practical electorate work.

"There was a little blow-back from some sectors of Wairarapa," she said. "'Look, girly, we didn't put you in there to give it up after one term. You are just a bit nervy at the start.'"

But she was not elevated out of the back-benches and she resigned in 2007 after two terms.

"Then I had my kidney failure diagnosis in 2013 and it was pretty much my life for the next five years."

"It was the rebel in me, I suppose but I really objected to handing over control of my life in practically every aspect to medical professionals. I'm not very good at surrendering control."

After two years of dialysis, a transplant became imperative.

"It was incredibly humbling," Beyer explains. "It was 2015, the day before my birthday. Grant Pittams - he and his partner, Tony, live in Carterton. I have known them for a long time - and Grant who I had never been to lunch with just said to me one day, 'Come out to lunch!' We went to the cafe near the National Archives, and I thought 'This is nice.'

"And before we went much further, he said, 'I've got something that I want to put to you and I have given it some thought. You and I have both had some mutual friends who have recently passed away.' And he said, 'If I can do something for somebody I'd like to. And I'm offering you my kidney.'"

"And I sat there gobsmacked and looked at him and the first thing I said was, 'Have you talked to Tony about this?' And he said, 'Yes.' I just dissolved into tears."

It wasn't all smooth sailing. There were several delays and a last-minute rescheduling, but in early April 2017, Beyer had her kidney transplant.

"It went very, very well. The surgeon said to me later that we knew it was successful because before they even closed I was producing urine. One thing about having kidney failure is that you don't pee anymore, so to say that before they shut me up they could see urine was a very good sign.

"Recovery has taken longer than I thought," Beyer concedes. "I had thought a couple of months and bing! I'd be just like I was before this drama occurred. But I have post-operative medications that I have to take for the rest of my life and I'd lost a lot of weight – I was almost skeletal by the time I had my transplant."

Her first large public event after the operation was hosting the glittering Auckland Pride Gala, the signature introduction to Auckland's annual Pride parade and festival.

"What was going through my head was this might be the last time I have to do a public performance. And I thought, well if it was the last time, I would do a tune and I did … A big chunk of my life was spent in Auckland performing at places like Alfie's."

Beyer lip-synced to Whitney Houston's Greatest Love of All before a standing and cheering capacity crowd.

"The ovation was fabulous."

Now Beyer is about to travel to the UK, courtesy of Air New Zealand and Auckland Pride. She will be the first person of Māori descent and only the fourth New Zealander to address the Oxford Union. This will be followed by an address to the Cambridge Union in a double-first.

"I go out there with an open heart … I never write a speech. If it doesn't come from the head and the heart, how genuine is it?.

"While I have been asked to talk about my life from sex-work to Parliament, I also want to take the opportunity to plug the good things this country has done insofar as helping minorities become more equal, integrated, and accepted in our society.

"We're not there entirely of course," Beyer adds realistically, "but we have come a long way considering other countries - and I am an example of that."

• Georgina Beyer will address the Oxford Union on Tuesday, October 23. The Cambridge Union address is on Wednesday, October 31.