8 Aug 2016

Carmen's silhouette lights up Cuba St again

9:48 pm on 8 August 2016

With MC Amandah La Whore getting proceedings under way, Carmen was once again at the heart of Wellington's red light district.

Pouring rain could not put the kibosh on celebrations at the launch of four road crossing lights featuring Carmen's silhouette, marking a change from the more pedestrian walking green man.

Like the Kate Sheppard-themed lights near Parliament, the lights installed on Cuba Street were to commemorate a woman who had been a strong advocate for the marginalised.

08082016. Photo Rebekah Parsons-King. Carmen Rupe lights light up green on multiple crossings down Cuba Street in Wellington.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Carmen Rupe, born Trevor Rupe, campaigned for hotel bars to be kept open late, prostitution to be made legal, abortion and homosexual acts to be decriminalised and sex education in schools.

Carmen's International Coffee Lounge opened in 1967 on Vivian Street, with transgender hostesses serving more than just tea and coffee.

08082016. Photo Rebekah Parsons-King. Carmen Rupe lights light up green on multiple crossings down Cuba Street in Wellington. Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwhaho doubled as Carmen Rupe.

Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwhaho doubled as Carmen Rupe. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

It provided a place for the LGBTQ community to take refuge from a disapproving society.

As well as owning the Coffee Lounge, Carmen ran striptease club 'The Balcony', as well as a brothel and a massage parlour, and dabbled in politics.

Backed by businessman Bob Jones, Carmen stood for the Wellington mayoralty in 1977. Her slogan "Get in behind" was typical of her risque, but glamorous style.

08082016. Photo Rebekah Parsons-King. Carmen Rupe lights light up green on multiple crossings down Cuba Street in Wellington. Indy Pendant dresses up for the occasion.

Indy Pendant dresses up for the occasion. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Carmen died in Sydney in 2011, aged 75.

Mayor Celia Wade-Brown said Carmen was ahead of her time in the conservative 1960s and 1970s.

"Her poise and grace showed that diversity is always an advantage, not something to be tolerated, not a problem, but an advantage - different ways of looking at the world."

08082016. Photo Rebekah Parsons-King. Carmen Rupe lights light up green on multiple crossings down Cuba Street in Wellington. Celia Wade-Brown makes a speech.

Celia Wade-Brown makes a speech at the event. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Dana, a friend of Carmen's, said she saw the world through a very tolerant lens.

Also transsexual, Dana said she was often beaten up and insulted just walking down the street.

08082016. Photo Rebekah Parsons-King. Carmen Rupe lights light up green on multiple crossings down Cuba Street in Wellington. Dana, a close friend of Carmen's makes a speech.

Dana makes a speech. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

08082016. Photo Rebekah Parsons-King. Carmen Rupe lights light up green on multiple crossings down Cuba Street in Wellington. Dana and Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown embrace at the unveiling.

Dana and Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown embrace at the unveiling. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

She said Carmen's coffee lounge was a safe haven and everybody was welcomed in.

"She was a person who cared about everybody. Didn't matter what nationality, what colour, what sexuality."

Dana said it was amazing how much the general public accepted Carmen given she was a prostitute, which was frowned upon.

"My mother couldn't stop oohing and ahhing for half an hour when we went into her coffee lounge.

"She said, 'just walking in, you seem to be enveloped with love and this warm feeling of, oh I don't want to leave here, this is so lovely' and then Carmen would come sliding past and go, 'and how are you dear? You alright dear?'."

Borni Te Tukiwaho, who portayed Carmen in TV’s How to murder your wife show

Borni Te Tukiwaho, who portayed Carmen in TV’s How to murder your wife show Photo: supplied

Former police vice squad detective Trevor Morley said he had come across Carmen because of her "moral crimes", but a mutual respect had grown between them to the point he was invited to attend her funeral.

In many ways she was a model citizen, Mr Morley said.

Carmen crossing lights

Carmen crossing lights Photo: Supplied

"It's not very often that you have a detective appearing at the funeral service of someone who he had arrested, but I looked upon that as a mark of her respect and my own respect for her because as myself and my sergeant used to say 'if everybody was as good and cooperative as Carmen was we wouldn't have had much work to do."

But their mutual respect did not stop him from setting a sting to catch her out.

"We had to carry out an operation to see if Carmen was in fact doing what people said she was doing, namely running prostitutes, having a brothel and that sort of thing.

"So we carried out an operation with a very elderly police officer as the undercover man, and yes, that's, in fact, what we were able to prove."

Former Carterton mayor and Labour MP Georgina Beyer, the world's first openly transsexual to hold either position, said Carmen had an incredible influence on her when she first met her as a teenager.

"Relief at finding somewhere where I could be safe and included was vital and important," she said.

Carmen portrait by te Mete (2013)

Carmen portrait by te Mete (2013) Photo: supplied

"Just the fact that she had a go at the Wellington mayoralty also brought our visibility and ability to achieve normalcy in mainstream society was really important and reaffirming."

Carmen's friends and supporters said it was right that she was recognised as a rangatira, or leader, who had the bravery and character to take the road less travelled.

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