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Co-curator Chanel Hati, with Sydney artist Nicolette Page’s portrait of Carmen on the wall behind her.

Wellington's pioneering trans community celebrated in exhibition

A new exhibition on the pioneering Wellington trans community is bringing Carmen home.

Say “Carmen”, and most Wellingtonians immediately know who you mean. Even those who don’t recognise the name know the woman memorialised in the Cuba St precinct’s pedestrian green-light silhouettes.

In the 60s and 70s, Carmen Rupe was at the heart of the capital’s nightlife. She owned a popular coffee lounge and a strip club, and in 1977 she campaigned for the Wellington mayoralty. A pioneer champion of transgender and gay rights, what she fought for – and what has now been largely embraced by lawmakers and the wider community – made her ahead of her time.

Her final years were spent in Australia, but she remained a local favourite, and has now “come home”, immortalised in an appropriately outsized portrait by Sydney artist Nicolette Page, who has donated it to the Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection.

The work features in a new exhibition, Poutokomanawa – the Carmen Rupe Generation, showing at the gallery until 15 December. “A pou is a pillar, and those early high-profile transgender women – Carmen, Chrissy Witoko, Dana de Milo, and later, Georgina Beyer – are the pillars that support my generation,” says co-curator Chanel Hati, who knew Carmen and her circle of friends.

A 1963 portrait of Carmen by Victor Morey

“They were charming, elegant and bold. But they were also stigmatised, and harassed by the police. Yet they spoke out against inequality and injustice; they provided safe havens for the queer community and street-based sex workers to gather; and they broke down the barrier between the community and wider society. Today, there are transgender women receiving New Zealand’s highest honours – unthinkable in Carmen’s time.”

Collages by transgender pioneer Witoko (who died in 2003), made up of hundreds of photos and newspaper clippings that give a glimpse of Wellington’s gay and trans community in the 70s, 80s and 90s, also feature in the exhibition.

(Te Papa, which now holds Witoko’s collages, is trying to identify the people who are featured in them – so if you recognise anyone, let one of the gallery staff know.)

Works by contemporary transgender artists accompany the historic material, including Selkie, a portrait by award-winning artist Jack Trolove, and Poutokomanawa, a commissioned piece by Ariki Brightwell.

One attention-grabbing exhibit is a purple and silver-glitter policeman’s helmet, presented to Rupe by two former vice detectives at her 70th birthday.

“I think they ultimately held her in affection, and with respect,” says Hati. “She had a strained relationship with the law in her heyday, but this was a token of reconciliation.”

Rupe was charismatic, and she used that appeal to unsettle 1970s conservative sensibilities. “Her mayoral campaign slogan was Fred Dagg’s ‘Get in Behind’,” laughs Hati. “But she campaigned, seriously, for things like marriage equality, homosexual law reform and the decriminalisation of sex work: issues the wider community felt weren’t even worth thinking about. They’re all realities now.”

Although Rupe’s bid for the mayoralty was unsuccessful, Hati says it paved the way for Georgina Beyer to become the world’s first openly transgender mayor – in Carterton, 18 years later – and then become a well-regarded Labour MP.

“I love what Georgina once said: ‘I stand on the shoulders of people who went before me, and now people stand on the shoulders of people like me.’ That acknowledges the contribution Carmen and her generation made, and continue to make even today through people like Georgina.”

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.