The Life & Times of Carmen Rupe

the fearless kiwi queen

colorful Carmen collage
Transgender activist and drag performer Carmen Rupe paved the way toward equal rights in New Zealand.

A Timeline of Carmen's Extraordinary Life

  • 1936: Born Trevor Rupe in Taumarunui on North Island, New Zealand on 10th October
  • 1955: Conscripted into military service, she begins training as a nurse; performs as American cabaret star Eartha Kitt during a concert despite fears of fellow soldiers' reactions — for which she receives a standing ovation
  • 1957: Moves to Kings Cross in Sydney, Australia where she adopts the name Carmen, gets breast implants and becomes the first Maori drag performer
  • 1966: Arrested for being dressed as a woman during a routine traffic stop. The case makes legal history when the judge rules cross-dressing to be legal
  • 1968: Fed up with harassment in Sydney, Carmen moves to Wellington and opens a popular coffee lounge/brothel frequented by artists and politicians alike
  • 1975: She is summoned to appear before the Privileges Committee by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon for suggesting some MPs are gay or bisexual
Carmen singing in sequin dress

Memories of Carmen

In Her Own Words

“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.”

"The police were very, very heavy... They used to take us into the police station and give us a hiding and beat us up. I was locked up... about a dozen times. But it made me a stronger person today."

"All the straight people in that time, when they would hear about these gay places, they said it wouldn't last long... Fifty years later they're still going. And all those straight clubs and straight owners who laughed at us, they're all dead and gone and we're still here."

In the Words of Others

“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 city's most vulnerable people.” ------------------------------ Sydney Mayor, Clover Moore

“I admired her strength in living her life on her terms and standing up against discrimination.” ------------------------------ Wellington Mayor, Celia Wade-Brown

“She was put on this earth with the sole mission to pave the way for so many... and that is just what she has done.” --------- Former Councilor Jacquie Grant