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Carmen Rupe

Carmen, a transgender icon.
Carmen, a transgender icon. 2006, Photographer unknown, courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (PAColl-9249-2).

Carmen Rupe was New Zealand's first iconic drag queen. She became a well-known entertainer and entrepreneur in New Zealand and Australia in the 1970s. She also became notorious for the sexually tolerant venues she established in Wellington in the 70s.

Carmen's International Coffee Lounge

Carmen's International Coffee Lounge was a flamboyant space festooned with avant-garde European art, mirrors, and tropical fish. Although homosexuality was illegal, various types of sexual liaison were available at Carmen's. Patrons arranged their coffee cups in particular ways to indicate whether they were after a heterosexual, gay, transsexual, or drag queen encounter.

Should a police raid occur, an elaborate system of doors and stairways provided discreet escape routes.

Claiming public space

By the 1980s, such venues became an important part of the gay liberation movement. They provided spaces where the queer community could meet, discuss issues, and be themselves. Venues, like the Evergreen Café in Wellington, were lively places, often frequented by a wide range of patrons, including drag queens, lesbians, gay men, prostitutes, labourers, office workers, the Salvation Army …

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