It's hard to know exactly when Georgina Beyer decided that there was nothing to fear from honesty. It might have been when, as a teenage boy called George, Beyer dressed in women's clothes to visit his local small-town grocery store. Or it might have been when, aged 16 or 17, George discovered Wellington's gay scene and made the momentous decision to live as Georgina.

Or perhaps it was the day when, while mayor of the town of Carterton, Georgina agreed to be the subject of an authorised biography not only detailing how she came to terms with being a transsexual but her five years spent as a stripper and prostitute. For all her searing honesty, however, she was not prepared for the storm of publicity caused by her election to New Zealand's parliament in 1999.

To her knowledge, Beyer is the first transsexual to be elected to a parliament. The reaction to her election was overwhelming. ''I had to deal suddenly with all of this attention which was totally focused on this sexuality of mine,'' she says, rolling her eyes to the ceiling of her Wellington office. ''Every cynical slant that could be made about it was made about it by the media. The Queen and I meet in an official capacity and every headline is 'former prostitute' this and 'former sex worker' that and all of my deeds of the past were reinforced.'' A smile sweeps her face like sunshine breaking through cloud. ''But it still did not make enough of an impact to destroy my credibility as a human being, as a person, as a politician. Which is remarkable.''

She is right: it is. And that is a reflection not only of her personal strengths - her honesty, her showmanship, her much-commented-upon charisma - but, as she is quick to point out, of the maturity of the society in which she lives and works. Beyer's story has broken the mould. She has, as she says, brought ''huge kudos'' to the transsexual community, but she has become far more than a figurehead. She is a popular constituency

MP and conviction politician who has won public admiration for

saying what she thinks.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the role she played last year in the passage of the Prostitution Reform Bill which decriminalised pimping, brothel-keeping and soliciting. The bill was passed, following an impassioned speech by Beyer which drew on her own experiences, by just one vote.

It is still a live issue when we meet in Parliament House in late January, the middle of the New Zealand parliament's summer recess. On the corridor of MPs' offices, only one door is open - hers - and her voice carries through it: deep and with the clarity that comes with theatrical training (Beyer was an actress before politics ''happened'' to her 10 years ago).

She is already waiting for me in her grand office and greets me with a firm handshake and a warm smile. I have been told that she is always immaculately dressed and today, holiday or not, is no exception. The focus of her decidely rounded, feminine face is her trademark specs - big, round and the only thing in her appearance that hints at her flamboyant streak. She is also tall, at 5ft 10in in her stockinged feet, and when she sits, she fills the chair, her broad hands folded delicately on her lap.

She is deeply interested to hear how a bill to introduce official prostitution tolerance zones in Scotland was knocked back by the Scottish parliament but is now to be reintroduced. Overcoming opposition to the Prostitute Reform Bill in New Zealand, she says, took time. She was a supporter of it, not the proposer and mastermind - that was her colleague, Tim Barnett - but her authoritative pronouncements were no small part of its success. ''I was able to speak on this subject with a more acute experience than perhaps any others in the parliament would wish to admit to,'' she says, with one eyebrow cocked. Her openness, coupled with a sense of humour and comic timing honed by years on the cabaret circuit and as an actor (she can make the unique claim to have appeared in a soap opera, Close to Home, first as a male and then as a female character) had already marked her out as a popular performer

in parliament before the bill came along.

A cursory glance over her

journey from what she calls ''misfit'' to media darling explains why. Born George Bertrand in Wellington in 1957, part Maori and part Pakeha (white), Beyer had a sometimes happy, sometimes deeply troubled childhood and adolescence. When he was a young child, George would play at ''dress-ups'' with his friend, Joy. This shocked his mother and step-father and it was only when he left school and discovered Wellington's gay scene that he felt truly free to express himself. The sight of beautiful drag queens who, because of hormone treatment, looked like women, convinced him at the age of just 17 that he, too, could live as a woman: Georgina. He began working as a stripper and then as a prostitute. From New Zealand, Georgina went to Sydney. It was to be a fateful decision. There, after getting into a car with four men who had promised her marijuana, she was subjected to a terrifying rape (the

rape intensified when the assailants realised that she was a transsexual).

She describes the experience as ''hitting rock bottom''. In her speech on the eve of the Prostitution Reform Bill vote she told a packed but hushed parliament that, had the bill been been law then ''I might have been able to go to the police and say, 'I was raped. Yes, I'm a prostitute and, no, it was not right that I should have been raped because I said no'.''

It was her decision to have a sex reassignment operation in 1984 that really turned her life around. She describes it as the ''most significant, greatest achievement'' of her life. Six years later, she moved to rural Wairarapa in New Zealand and worked as a drama tutor, community worker and in radio before being elected as a local councillor and then, in 1995, as mayor of Carterton, a path that led to her election to parliament. The memory of her days as a prostitute, however, and of those she knew, are undimmed. She has no truck with what she describes as the hypocritical attitude of a society that criminalises the prostitute but not the client and deems it acceptable for men to go to strip joints but burns with self-righteous indignation when it comes to prostitution.

''Yes, of course we want to protect our children from the lewd ills of this world but prostitution has been around so long we can't just give it passing acceptance like 'tolerance' in Edinburgh. We need to work out what our tolerance level is. Who are we actually trying to protect?''

The New Zealand law requires all brothel owners and pimps to seek a licence. Licences are refused to anyone who has a criminal record or links to a silent partner who has one. As for prostitutes, with liberty comes responsibility. They are now covered by health and safety, labour and tax legislation. Crucially, the views of local communities are part of the process, which Beyer decribes, with conviction, as ''fair enough''.

Has it worked? The first licence applications have come in, more are in the pipeline and there has been no explosion of new brothels.

Beyer is clearly thrilled by her country's liberality in such matters. She believes the country is among the top 10 in the world for gay rights.

Three years from now, Beyer will be out of parliament and wants to do some work for the UN, on the speaking circuit and return to acting.

Suddenly, I get a glimpse of the hopeful young Georgina who succeeded against the odds. ''If you'd told me 25 or 30 years ago that I would ever be in this position, I wouldn't have believed you,'' she says, and with a truly joyful

smile concludes: ''I think that's

just marvellous.''