Vale Carmen Rupe

I read with sadness today that Carmen Rupe has died.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, she was a “transgender icon”.

Born in Taumarunui in 1935 as Trevor Rupe and one of a family of 13, she moved to Sydney to become a sex worker in the 1950s. It was while working in Kings Cross as the first Maori drag queen that she took on the name that would see her become a heroine to the gay community. Carmen also performed in Les Girls in Kings Cross and at the first openly gay bar, The Purple Onion. She returned to Wellington in the 1960s to develop sex venues at a time when homosexuality and prostitution were illegal. The best known was Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge, decorated flamboyantly with avant-garde art and tropical fish. Carmen was discreet about who was drinking coffee while arranging their heterosexual, gay, transsexual, or drag queen encounters. “We had plenty of famous people but I’m terrible with names – although I always remember sizes,” she said in an interview in 2001. The entrepreneur and entertainer made an unsuccessful bid for the Wellington mayoralty in 1977, on platforms which were radical at the time. She campaigned for hotel bars to be open till midnight or even 2am, the drinking age to be lowered to 18, prostitution to be made legal, homosexual acts to be decriminalised, abortion to be decriminalised and nudity on some beaches. All these are now legal. Carmen returned to Sydney and despite being in poor health in later years, she never failed to push boundaries. In 2008 she led the Decade of the Divas float at the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras aboard her red mobility scooter, topless. Following hip surgery earlier this year, Carmen was admitted to hospital several times. Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown says Carmen was a cheerful and colourful personality. “I admired her strength in living her life on her terms and standing up against discrimination.”

Although I had never met Carmen, I certainly recognised her face, and, in particular, I recognised her from the streets of Surry Hills where she rode about on her gopher (mobility scooter). I think I read a couple of years ago, it was a gift from the community. The first time I saw her on it she was driving down Crown Street, Surry Hills and from the look on her face, was a little apprehensive. After a few months, she seemed to gain confidence. I loved the image of an older transgender person dressed up to the nines and riding around on a mobility scooter. It was such a contrast to the regular image of someone on a mobility scooter driving. Although I had never met her and didn’t know, it seemed to me it was a sign she was someone proud of who she was.

Legendary performer, Carmen at the Museum of Sydney
Legendary performer, Carmen at the Museum of Sydney

A couple of years ago I saw her perform at the Museum of Sydney at the opening of an exhibition about Kings Cross, which is where I snapped this shot. If you want to see some better photographs of Carmen, you should visit Daniel Boud’s blog.

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