Georgina Beyer

Inspired by documentary Georgie Girl
– about the world's first trans MP, Georgina Beyer –
screening as part of our Nevertheless She Persisted film season,
Cause & Effect zine chair a discussion in response:
talking trans visibility, the treachery of 'firsts' and how to
bring outsider politics to the mainstream

Illustration of Georgina Beyer Illustration of Georgina Beyer

Illustration: Alexandra Bowman

Illustration: Alexandra Bowman

Ahead of our Nevertheless She Persisted film season, guest editor Claire Marie Healy has invited three agenda-setting zines to weigh in on the docs: first up, Cause & Effect zine's Tom Rasmussen and Emily Carlton's roundtable discussion on Georgie Girl (2001).

‘Mr Speaker, I can’t help but mention the number of firsts that are in this parliament.’

On-screen, a middle-aged Maori woman in a salmon pink suit boldly addresses her colleagues.

‘Our first Rastafarian, our first Polynesian woman, and, yes, I have to say it I guess – the first transexual in New Zealand to be standing in this house of Parliament. Not only in New Zealand, but in the world.’

There are many firsts in our history as LGBTQIA+ people. As a community largely denied our rights, we were instead given countless walls, ceilings and barriers made for the breaking — creating, as a result, a history bestrewn by ‘firsts’, ‘remarkables’, and ‘against-the-odds’.

Until Georgina Beyer was elected to represent New Zealand’s Wairarapa constituency in 1999, not a single trans person had reached parliament anywhere in the world, ever. Hers is an unforgettable story: a former sex worker, an exotic dancer, an award-winning TV star, a proud Maori and a transgender woman voted in as representative of a predominantly white, working class, rural constituency on a national level. She was a woman on an unlikely mission to voice the needs of those on the fringes from where she came, all while maintaining a generous countenance throughout her political years – despite constant questions about c*cks via a close-minded media out to bedraggle her.

‘Mr Speaker, I can’t help but mention the number of firsts that are in this parliament’

Georgie Girl is the 2001 documentary which set out to shed light on this story – paying tribute to Beyer as more than a first, illuminating the colourful jewels which bespangle a life like hers. Watching the documentary almost two decades later, it’s evident that a lot and a little has changed in that time: while there’s evermore representation in the media of people with stories like Beyer’s, a slew of abuse and contention continues around trans folk and their rights to exist. Beyer’s story depicts a woman who moved far from her outlier beginnings, showing us how one might infiltrate the mainstream and not forget who you really are in the process.

But when LGBTQIA+ history is retold through these litanies of broken boundaries, those from our community who become notable are rarely seen through any other lens. And while the collective summation of all these ‘firsts’ and ‘remarkables’ provides us with brilliant heroes like the indestructible Georgie, and a history which reads more thrillingly than any fiction, how often do these firsts go beyond tokenism to become actual building blocks to equality? Is the goal of ‘acceptance’ a dubious one anyway? And would a story like Beyer’s even be fathomable in 2018?

Using Georgie Girl as its springboard, these are the questions this panel sets out to discuss. As a magazine, Cause & Effect’s manifesto speaks to Beyer’s own ambitions: to allow people like us to have a space to discuss what matters to us, bringing outsider individuals and their politics to the forefront. In response to the documentary, we brought together Juno Roche, indomitable journalist, author of Queer Sex and patron of CliniQ; Kai-Isaiah Jamal, the multi-faceted poet and performer who explores the intersections of trans and black and working class masculinities; and Vee Maskimova, activist with the East London Stripper’s Collective.

C&E: What did you take away as your primary impression of the documentary?

Vee: Georgie’s bravery is remarkable! I’m so impressed by her strength. I think the message is to remind people no matter what happens, don’t give up on the path you’ve chosen.

Kai: There was a refreshing positivity throughout, but the main message I got was the story of a woman who changed and shaped her country in such an important way. The normalisation of her was extremely significant: so many queer identities are fetishised through representation but it didn’t feel like this here. Highlighting her previous sex work background was something that stuck out too, I felt this gave a history to her existence rather than centring everything around her trans identity – so many people believe this is all that validates us. The ability to create some comical dialogue is something queer documentation does not (often) have due to the weight of so many issues we face. I loved these parts.

Juno: The message was, ‘look how easily this happened, how accepting the community was,’ and perhaps is. But, I think that almost from line one the main narrative was ‘this is about firsts’. I struggle to see that as a building block of activism or political equality so I felt slightly disconnected. Its message was clear: that a trans woman of colour with a history that includes sex work can become whatever she wants. Certainly as a very binary, femme-presenting trans woman, she was a whole lot more palatable than if she had been visibly trans, but she rightly owned that throughout the documentary. That isn't to diminish her personal journey which is of course remarkable and inspiring as an example of a career. But I felt the documentary and her own spoken narrative played up to a trans trope of glamour and femininity being the winning formula. (We see) other trans women, especially when shown in B&W footage, (fielding) intrusive questions about their reality, surgery and d*cks.

'While the collective ‘firsts’ provide us with brilliant heroes like the indestructible Georgie, how often do these firsts become building blocks to equality?'

C&E: So do you not see documenting these important ‘firsts’ and ‘moments’ in our histories as essential to our progress (a thorny word, I know) as LGBT, and specifically trans folk?

Juno: I think we should celebrate what ‘firsts’ do – the legacy of firsts rather than the act of being first. Of course knowing that people can aspire to become whatever they want is important. And I would say that she is a remarkable woman who became an MP in NZ who also happened to be a trans woman of colour who had engaged in drag, showgirling and sex work. She cleverly used humour to blend and blend she did. But seldom do documentaries or editorials (that are currently so popular post the trans tipping point), ever depict a trans first becoming a ladder up for others. Not much was said about her impact on trans legislation or how she allowed a path to be created for others. Our histories are littered and punctuated with firsts – but try stringing them together into a pattern of embedded growth. How many sex workers have gone into politics since? How many trans MPs globally? So few there's actually a wiki page. It would be impossible to gauge if any other people who had engaged in sex work had followed on behind Georgina, but I doubt it.

Kai: Right, totally, but there is so much queer erasure that documenting these things is extremely important. There’s a rich history of queer bodies and queer identities that have had no documentation. They rely on storytelling; passing things down throughout the queer community. Although this is a very important part of our community, I believe the only way to show our visibility to those outside our spheres, is to have films, photos, some form of recollection – proof that these people exist and did wonderful things. So much hate and ignorance towards trans folk comes from the issues of trans folk never being visible. We are more idea than human to so many people, and we are othered in a way that is comprising to our safety.

C&E: As you both explain it’s a hard line to tread — between honouring real change and documenting and celebrating that, instead of one remarkable case. Because as we all know, today we are seeing a huge public attack on trans folk in life, politics, media. Can you imagine what happened to Georgina happening today?

Juno: Transphobia hadn't become so embedded then, as we were comparatively rare being ‘out’. Our fights are now the fights of a semi-established community facing kickback. The media still do love 'firsts' as it seems to give a trans person credence, the first trans train driver, the first trans gardener to the Queen.

Kai: Totally, but as Juno says we’re now in a situation of trans hate crimes and abuse being rife in our society due to the way that trans and non binary folk are misrepresented or unrepresented. People are even more open about their opinions these days. I think we often forget (because marginalised people create such nurturing and important chosen family communities) that the wider world isn’t progressing in the way we always think. Often I think we are getting somewhere, that LGBT+ voices are being given platforms and then I realise that is very much ‘for us by us’. These spaces, events, platforms come about because we fight for them, not because we are given equal opportunities.

Juno: What happened to Georgina does happen occasionally – in the States last year several out trans politicians gained footholds. They are few, but numbers are growing.

'Often I think we are getting somewhere, that LGBT+ voices are being given platforms and then I realise that is very much ‘for us by us’. These spaces, events, platforms come about because we fight for them, not because we are given equal opportunities...'

C&E: It felt like the documentary avoided tokenising her the way identities can so easily be today.

Kai: This was what was so refreshing about her story and the documentation of it. I agree, there have been countless occasions in which people have spoken about my transness before anything else about me. ‘Oh you're Kai, the trans guy right?’ or ‘Hey can I ask some questions about transitioning?’, this idea of creating someone’s identity based on one aspect of their life without any regard for the rest of them. I feel now there is a huge advancement in regards to how we talk about things and that we talk about things – but it is (also about) how we talk about the person. Though it is so important to highlight those who overcome oppression and to display the societal structures that are in place and how these things make success ten times harder, I feel credit is due where it is due. Her success shouldn’t just be based on her history and in fact the relentless work and hours put into achieving these successes. She didn’t become mayor or member of Parliament because she was trans, a POC or has come from a background of sex work. They are just aspects of her that make her victory in the roles even more significant.

C&E: So did aspects of Georgina’s story make you feel represented, personally?

Kai: When watching I kept scribbling down quotes. She said she ‘wanted to be upper class’ when referring to the more performative element of her work. I understood it. Richness can allow you a freedom to be who you are, to be out of the norm – it protects you against so much. Often I have thought about how different this whole transition of mine would be if I were rich. Yes the surgery would be quick and the hormones easy to access. But mainly I’d be safer, I would be unapologetically, highly, visibly me!

Vee: For me, the part where she talked about her experience with rape spoke to me the most, since I had a similar experience myself. Sadly this is what happens in strip clubs and the sex industry. What I loved about it is what a fighter she is, and that despite all she’s been through she was an MP! That’s big! I feel like we have something in common – a hard life motivates some. In the work I do with ELSC, we aim to promote the self-organisation of strippers, lap-dancers in London and the UK, and to challenge societal attitudes towards strip-club activity by uniting performers, creating their own working conditions and empowering dancers. We promote independence, strength and self-love. That feels like we’re taking a lead, too.

C&E: Georgina is remarkable for her advocacy of sex workers, speaking openly in parliament about her first hand experiences. The documentary has a moderate attitude to her experience, needing to acknowledge it, but (not) wanting to make it a label that defined her. What did you make of this?

Vee: Absolutely, but I think there should be more about this as it’s part of her journey and how she got to where she is. However I don’t think she achieved all of this because she was a sex worker nor because she’s trans, she did it all because she’s a fighter and a people-person. I personally speak very openly about how I was a stripper for 13 years: I do this in the office where I work, in college where I study, in front of my friends and family. I’d never deny it and I always embrace it. I believe Georgie was doing the same and I’m so impressed by this, especially because this was such a long time ago and back then times were more difficult than now when it comes to this subject.

Juno: I suspect that what she was able to achieve was highlighted because she was powerful and present: depicted as a polite Women's Institute member, doing local good without a loving partner. She had 'cleaned' up and washed away any of the inconvenient truths of discrimination we face and still do. I am currently doing some research for a piece and in many countries up to 30-50% of trans femmes are engaged in sex work, often at the sharp edge. The rates of HIV infection globally stand at around 19% of all trans women, the highest number of any group and many of them will be engaged in sex work. Yet it is all too often pushed under polite carpets.

'She didn’t become mayor or member of Parliament because she was trans, a POC or has come from a background of sex work.

They are just aspects of her that make her victory in the roles even more significant'

C&E: Do you think for marginalised voices to be raised and centred in a mainstream place, like Georgina’s in parliament, it necessarily requires some sacrifice on the part of the marginalised person? Our history is embellished with those who sacrificed everything for ‘the cause’ – do you think it’s worth it?

Juno: No because, ironically, in the sacrifice is our truth. If she had a partner it would have pushed the system, if she had spoken and campaigned more for trans rights it would have given her first status real purpose. When we try to fit in to achieve success we simply become their caricatures.

Kai: I know personally often mainstream organisations or publications like me to write about transness, (when) sometimes I want to write about other things. When I decided to start writing the book I am currently working on I decided to cover it all in code and metaphors, therefore hiding away from the explicit way of speaking about my history and story of transitioning.

On many occasions I stopped writing about the things I wanted to because highlighting issues or problems TPOC face brought me some success; when there were other aspects of my history I wanted to talk about, nothing would be as successful as that. I felt myself becoming just a boy that could write about trans identity. I sacrificed my imagination and the way it unfolds because I had to. I don’t think it is always worth it, I think we also have to live. And this is where marginalised folk lose the knowledge on how to care and love themselves, how to take time away from everything we are battling and heal.

C&E: The documentary shows an acceptance, even adoration, of Georgina from many in scenarios we might not expect to accept her as a trans woman, a former sex worker, and someone whose background is an ethnic minority in New Zealand. What do you think acceptance looks like today? Can you imagine it? Do we want it?

Vee: I think sex work and the strip club industry should be accepted in society the same way any other job is. We need the space and the independence for the workers to make their own decisions about their employment, and more human rights education for employers. And the government can fund this.

Kai: Yes, acceptance is a hard one. I don’t believe that I need someone’s approval in order to feel validated. I don’t think it is acceptance that we need, I think it is understanding and I think it’s space. It’s for people to not speak on matters that do not concern them. I think we need a culture that stops prying into queer lives and stories and in fact gives us the space to bring what we feel is necessary to the public eye.

'I don’t think it is acceptance that we need, I think it is understanding and I think it’s space...'

Georgie Girl
Dir: Annie Goldson, Peter Wells.
New Zealand (2001)


Georgie Girl (15*) screens on Friday 20 April in Barbican Cinema 2.

Book tickets

Nevertheless She Persisted: Suffrage, cinema and beyond is screening from 18–24 April in the Barbican Cinema

Illustrations by Alexandra Bowman.

Part of The Art of Change, our 2018 season exploring how the arts respond to, reflect and potentially effect change in the social and political landscape.

About the panellists

Juno Roche is a journalist, patron of CliniQ and author of ‘Queer Sex’, out on 19 April 2018, and can be found at  @justjuno1

Kai-Isaiah Jamal is a poet and performer and can be found at  @kai_isaiah_jamal

Vee Maskimova is an activist and part of The East London Strippers Collective at @ethicalstripper

Claire Marie Healy is Deputy Editor at Dazed and a culture writer and can be found at  @clairehly

Cause & Effect is available at  causeandeffectmag.com. The second issue will be out in the summer.

Watch the trailer for 'Nevertheless She Persisted'

Watch the trailer for 'Nevertheless She Persisted'