Carmen Rupe (1936–2011) or “Kiwi Carmen” was a vivacious performer, businesswoman and brothel keeper, and LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS activist. She was a cultural icon in the transgender community who paved the way for many transgender men and women after her, and has been named a role model for many, including Georgina Beyer, the world’s first openly transsexual mayor.
Carmen was born as Trevor Rupe in 1936 in a small town on the North Island of New Zealand called Taumarunui. She grew up working on her family’s farm with twelve siblings before moving to Auckland. After working several odd jobs, she was conscripted in 1955 and started military training as a nurse. The same year, she did an impression of American cabaret star Eartha Kitt during a concert. She was nervous and worried about what the soldiers’ reactions would be, but at the end they gave her a standing ovation.
Two years later she moved to Kings Cross in Sydney, Australia, where she took her name Carmen (from the 1954 film Carmen Jones), got breast implants and stopped wearing men’s clothes, and became the very first Maori drag performer. Her show including hula dancing and two live snakes.
As soon as I heard about the drag shows opening there I said ‘bye bye men’s clothes’. I’ve never put anything on since. Never. Carmen Rupe
During this time, the police were very active against the drag performers in Australia. Carmen was arrested and beaten several times in the 50’s and 60’s:
The police were very, very heavy. They hated gay people. They hated drag queens and they hated lesbians. They used to take us into the police station and give us a hiding and beat us up. I was locked up in Long Bay prison about a dozen times. But it made me a stronger person today. Carmen Rupe
In 1968, fed up with all the harrassment in Sydney, Carmen moved to Wellington. She opened up a coffee bar/brothel with an inheritance she received from her grandfather. Soon Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge became a famous local hangout and was even visited by several Members of Parliament.
The law at the time still criminalized homosexual acts, but that didn’t stop Carmen. She challenged discrimination and prejudice against the gay and transgender communities. She often spoke to the press and was once summoned before the Privileges Commitee by Prime Minister Rob Muldoon for suggesting some MPs were gay or bisexual.
In 1977 Carmen ran for mayor of Wellington. She supported gay marriage, legalized prostitution, sex education in schools, nude beaches, and decriminalized abortion. Though she didn’t win, all of her proposed reforms are now legal in New Zealand.
Carmen wrote an autobiography with Paul Martin which was published in 1988 called “Having a Ball: My Life”. In 2003, she was inducted into the Variety Hall of Fame. She passed away on December 15, 2011 in Sydney, Australia. The Carmen Rupe Memorial Trust was established in 2013 to honor Carmen’s legacy by mobilizing transgender people along with family and friends to perform community and charity work to enhance the visibility of the trans community.
Carmen Rupe was an icon for Sydney’s Transgender community and a tireless advocate for GLBT rights. She was a quiet achiever who spent decades as a volunteer with many organisations who provided support to some of our cities most vulnerable people. Sydney Mayor Clover Moore
One comment I read somewhere was that she was before her time. Well, I disagree. Carmen’s timing to enter and take our world by storm was right on the mark. What she did and how she impacted on society in New Zealand in the 1960s, 70s and 80s was her destiny. She was put on this earth with the sole mission to pave the way for so many and to make their journey easier and that is just what she has done. Jacquie Grant
- Time Out Sydney. Carmen. (Feb 2 2008) http://www.au.timeout.com/sydney/the-bridge/features/44/carmen accessed March 29 2013
- Clive Aspin. ‘Hōkakatanga – Māori sexualities – Sexual diversity in contemporary Māori society’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand (updated Nov 15 2012) http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/31713/carmen-and-georgina-beyer accessed March 29 2013
- Wikipedia. Carmen Rupe. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmen_Rupe accessed March 29 2013
- Jacquie Grant. HALL OF FAME Obituary: Carmen Rupe – “Rest well my darling”. (Dec 15 2011) http://www.gaynz.com/articles/publish/34/printer_11205.php accessed March 29 2013
Featured image of Carmen Rupe courtesy PrideNZ.com
KeriLynn Engel is an autodidact and women’s history buff who founded Amazing Women in History in 2011.