Taking Back History

Women in Defiance

Recent transphobic debate in the United States has brought out once again the poignant reminder that transgender individuals face discrimination in many different ways. The debates currently surround “bathroom bills,” which require, by law, that people use restrooms that conform to the sex listed on their birth certificates. A protester’s sign circulating social media aptly describes the situation: “It wasn’t about water fountains in the ‘60s, and it isn’t about bathrooms now. Stop the hate.” While many people are supporting the trans community, there is still a ridiculous amount of transphobic behaviour that goes on, on a regular basis, and this transphobia is not new.

Carmen Rupe was a Māori transgender woman who worked tirelessly to address discrimination. She was also a brothel-keeper, drag performer, mayoral candidate, and HIV/AIDS activist, and spent much of her life living in New Zealand and Australia. She is often seen as a transgender icon and inspiration, particularly in the 1960s and ‘70s. She’s inspired documentaries, an opera, and multiple portraits.

She grew up working on her family’s farm, with a dozen siblings. In 1955 she was conscripted and began military training as a nurse. According to the Amazing Women in History website, she did an impression of American cabaret star Eartha Kitt during a concert, and received a standing ovation. Soon after she moved to Sydney, and took her name Carmen. She became the first Māori drag performer, and her first show involved hula dancing and live snakes.

Discrimination against the LGBTQ community was prominent in Sydney at the time, and Rupe was arrested on multiple occasions. She said that the police would beat her up, “But it made me a stronger person today.”

Later she would move to Wellington, New Zealand, where she ran Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge and the Balcony strip club. According to an article in the Dominion Post, the coffee house opened when the pubs closed at 6 p.m., attracting a full spectrum of Wellington nightlife. Some would go for a cup of tea, but others would use their teacup to indicate other interests. Turning a teacup upside down or placing the saucer on top could demonstrate that you wanted something besides a hot beverage, from the rooms upstairs.

In 1977, Rupe ran for the position of mayor in Wellington. Although she was unsuccessful, she ran on a number of reforms, including the legalization of abortion, homosexuality, and sex work, as well as earlier sex education, and nudity on beaches—all of which have since been implemented. She nearly won one of the council seats.

Although she died in 2011, she’s left behind a legacy—most recently, a series of traffic lights in Wellington will soon feature her silhouette in the green light. In 2013 the Carmen Rupe Memorial Trust was established to mobilize the transgender community and its allies to perform social justice work, and to increase the visibility of the trans community.

According to a post on the Facebook page, Memories of Carmen Rupe, to those annoying her Rupe would say, “Look, there’s a bus in five minutes. Be under it.”

It is perhaps a fitting response to those still advocating for absurd bathroom laws.