Carmen Rupe

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Carmen Rupe
Kiwi Carmen 1960.jpg
Rupe in 1960
Born(1936-10-10)10 October 1936
Taumarunui, New Zealand
Died14 December 2011(2011-12-14) (aged 75)
Sydney, Australia
Other namesCarmen, Kiwi Carmen

Carmen Rupe (10 October 1936 – 14 December 2011), was a New Zealand drag performer, brothel keeper, anti-discrimination activist, would-be politician and HIV/AIDS activist.[1] Carmen Rupe was New Zealand's first drag queen to reach celebrity status.[2] She was a trans woman.[3]


Born in Taumarunui, Rupe had twelve siblings. Her mother was of Ngāti Hāua and Ngāti Heke-a-Wai descent, while her father was of Ngāti Maniapoto.[4] She relocated to the urban centres of Auckland and Wellington. After doing drag performances while doing compulsory military training and periods working as a nurse and waiter, Rupe moved to Sydney's Kings Cross in the late 1950s.[5] In the 1970s, she became notorious for the sexually tolerant venues she established in Wellington, and was renowned as a matriarchal figure among local trans communities.[2][6]

Taking the name of the Romani Flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya,[7] Rupe became Australia's first Māori drag performer and from that time on lived as a woman. A whole range of work followed, including snake-work, hula dancing and prostitution. Carmen never formally worked at Les Girls but over the years did some guest spots. She described how local police treated her: "I was locked up in Long Bay about a dozen times. But it made me a stronger person today."[8]

Police v Rupe[edit]

In 1966, Rupe was arrested while waiting for a taxi after a night out, charged by the police for 'frequenting with felonious intent' because she was wearing women's clothing. Despite misgendering Rupe, the case was a landmark one for the trans community, as Judge McCarthy ruled that he was "unable to find anything in our law which says that it is unlawful for a male to attire himself in female clothing."[9][6]


In 1988 an autobiography was published, outlining her escapades "from school boy to successful business woman". Carmen: My Life was written with Paul Martin and published by Benton Ross.[10]


Rupe in 2009 in Wellington with Charles Chauvel (left), Grant Robertson, and Maryan Street

In Wellington Carmen ran Carmen's International Coffee Lounge and the Balcony strip club. Despite the law criminalising homosexual acts, Carmen challenged the overt discrimination and prejudice against people in the gay and transgender communities.[11] She was not afraid to speak to the press and was summoned to appear before the Privileges Committee by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon for suggesting some MPs were gay or bisexual.[12]

In 1977 she ran for the Wellington mayoralty, with the support of local businessman Sir Bob Jones, with the slogans get in behind and Carmen for mayor[13] and a platform of gay marriage and legalised brothels, though neither of these are local-government matters in New Zealand.[8] Michael Fowler won re-election as Mayor.

Last years[edit]

Rupe returned to Surry Hills, Sydney where she lived the remainder of her life.[14] In 2003 she was inducted into the Variety Hall of Fame.[15] In 2008 she rode her mobility scooter topless at the head of the Decade of the Divas float at the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.[8] She was a prominent member of Agender, the New Zealand transgender group.[15]

Rupe died of kidney failure in St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, on 15 December 2011, after a fall and hip surgery earlier in the year; she was 75.[16]


A green pedestrian light depicting Rupe on Cuba Street, Wellington
A green pedestrian light depicting Rupe on Cuba Street, Wellington

Rupe has been cited as a role model by MP Georgina Beyer, the world's first openly transgender Member of Parliament. Long time friend and ex Grey District Councilor Jacquie Grant MNZM wrote this moving tribute for Carmen and at her Tangi delivered an equally moving Eulogy.[12][17]

In a heartfelt tribute, Sydney Mayor Clover Moore stated that:

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. I knew Carmen and was saddened by her passing. She will be missed by the people she touched and the community she was such a strong part of. It is heartening that, in accordance with her wishes, the Carmen Rupe Memorial Trust has been established to raise awareness of some of the issues faced by our GLBT community. This is a fitting tribute to someone who dedicated so much of their life to helping others.

Former Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown, stated support for erecting a statue of Rupe in Wellington:[18] "I admired her strength in living her life on her terms and standing up against discrimination."[19]

Four sets of traffic lights along Cuba Street in Wellington's central business district are fitted with green pedestrial lights depicting Rupe. The lights were installed in August 2016 to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Homosexual Law Reform Act.[20]

In 2020, the short film GURL was released based on Rupe's life.[21] The short film was a prequel to the feature film The Book of Carmen, which is currently in pre-production.[22] The film was directed, produced and written by Mika X.[23]


  1. ^ "Poroporoaki: Carmen – Hon Tariana Turia". 2011. Retrieved 20 December 2011. We knew her as Trevor Rupe from Taumarunui; we knew her as a loved member of the gay community, we knew her as an HIV/AIDS activist; and of course the world knew her as a flamboyant, incredible performer on stage.
  2. ^ a b Tongarewa, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa. "Carmen Rupe – Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa". Retrieved 12 March 2019.
  3. ^ "Carmen Rupe: Transgender Icon". Gender Centre Inc. 2011. Archived from the original on 10 April 2013. Retrieved 2 January 2013.
  4. ^ Townsend, Lynette. "Rupe, Carmen Tione". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 25 January 2021.
  5. ^ "Farewell Carmen Rupe". Gay News Network. 2011. Archived from the original on 2 February 2012. Retrieved 20 December 2011.
  6. ^ a b Hansen, Will, '"Every Bloody Right To Be Here": Trans Resistance in Aotearoa New Zealand, 1967 - 1989,' Masters Thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2020.
  7. ^ "35789 | Collections – Catalogue – Catalogue Item | Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision". 22 November 1975. Retrieved 12 August 2018.
  8. ^ a b c "Carmen Rupe, legend, dies in Sydney". 2011. Archived from the original on 7 January 2012. Retrieved 20 December 2011.
  9. ^ Martin, Paul (1988). Carmen: My Life as told to Paul Martin. Benton Ross Publishers. pp. 112–114.
  10. ^ Carmen; Martin, Paul (1988). Carmen: My Life. Auckland, N.Z.: Benton Ross. ISBN 0-908636-43-1. OCLC 35798069.
  11. ^ "Colourful Wellington identity Carmen dies". 2011. Retrieved 20 December 2011.
  12. ^ a b " Georgina Beyer in tears over loss of Carmen". 2011. Archived from the original on 24 September 2015. Retrieved 20 December 2011. Speaking later once she had 'regained my composure' Beyer said one of her proudest moments as an MP was when she and fellow gay MPs Tim Barnett and Chris Carter welcomed Carmen into Parliament to meet the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. Carmen's previous visit to Parliament came when she suggested some MPs were gay or bisexual and was subsequently hauled before Parliament's powerful Privileges Committee by then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon.
  13. ^ Trust: A true story of Women and Gangs. Pip Desmond. 2009. Page 158
  14. ^ "Jevan Goulter says Goodbye to Carmen". 2011. Retrieved 20 December 2011.
  15. ^ a b "A Gender Variance Who's Who: Carmen Rupe (1935–2011) performer, mayoral candidate". 2011. Retrieved 20 December 2011.
  16. ^ "Farewell Carmen Rupe – Gay News Network". 2011. Archived from the original on 2 February 2012. Retrieved 20 December 2011.
  17. ^ "Carmen and Georgina Beyer – Hōkakatanga – Māori sexualities – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand". 2011. Retrieved 20 December 2011. Carmen and Georgina Beyer are two of New Zealand's most well-known transsexuals, and both are of Māori descent. Carmen, New Zealand's first iconic drag queen, came to prominence in New Zealand and Australia in the 1970s. Beyer became the world's first openly transsexual mayor when she was elected mayor of Carterton in 1995. In 1999 she was elected to the Wairarapa seat, becoming the world's first openly transsexual MP.
  18. ^ " Wgtn mayor supports statue of 'statuesque' Carmen". 2011. Archived from the original on 6 January 2012. Retrieved 20 December 2011. Carmen was an important person in Wellington and a power in terms of diversity and tolerance," says mayor Wade-Brown. "A statue or something similar to remember Carmen by is a fantastic idea which I am happy to investigate. She was a fabulously statuesque person so maybe a statue would be most appropriate.
  19. ^ "Transgender icon Carmen Rupe dies in NSW". 15 December 2011. Retrieved 21 December 2011.
  20. ^ Nicoll, Jared (8 August 2016). "Carmen Rupe lighting up Wellington streets once again". Retrieved 23 September 2016.
  21. ^ "Spy: The legendary drag queen and the mystery All Black". Stuff NZ. Retrieved 13 July 2020.
  22. ^ "MIKA HAKA'S GURL TO PREMIERE AT NZ INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL NEXT WEEK". Gay Express. 13 July 2020. Retrieved 13 July 2020.
  23. ^ "World Premiere Of GURL, A New Film By Mika X In Whānau Mārama: NZ International Film Festival". Scoop. Retrieved 13 July 2020.

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