Tariana Turia spoke during the ceremony to gift Carmen Rupe's taonga (cultural treasures) to Te Papa - Museum of New Zealand on 1 November 2013. The speech is reproduced below:
E te iwi e tau mai nei, your worship the Mayor Celia Wade-Brown, my friend Georgina Beyer, whanau and friends of Carmen Rupe, tena koutou katoa. On the first floor of Te Papa there is a restaurant called Icon. After today, we might well rename it Carmen's Place. For if there was ever anyone who deserved the title of Icon it would be her - Carmen Rupe from Taumarunui - vivacious performer, entrepreneur, activist, business woman, Wellington legend and New Zealand superstar.
I have been asked to speak – as a Member of Parliament – about Carmen's impact on our nation - her role in paving the way for others to follow. In order to do so I want to first take us to Ngapuwaiwaha - the meeting place of the waters. The marae, in the centre of Taumarunui, is where our whanau across Whanganui gather every January to celebrate our tribal journey of discovery, Te Tira Hoe Waka.
For Carmen, her journey of discovery started here, a child of Ngati Maniapoto and Ngati Haua. In her 1988 biography, she recalled "there was always a sense of belonging, being well fed and well-loved amidst a confusion of grandmothers and aunties."
Her extended family lived at Pongaruhu road and grew up on the farm of the Te Keepa grandparents. Koro Te Keepa’s place became the centre of all whanau activity. Haymaking, mustering, shearing, crutching and harvesting - attracted aunts and uncles from far and wide. People came to be healed, for advice, for gossip, for sacred ceremonies. The children explored swimming holes, sought out wild honey and went eeling along the banks.
I wanted to share some of these beginnings because they provide a rich context for the incredible life Carmen is more well known for. Despite hardship and challenge, she had the courage and the strength of character to withstand pain, prejudice and violence and still come up smiling. As her biography title suggests she was happiest "having a ball."
In 1955 Carmen was conscripted and started military training as a nurse. In that first year of service she did an impression of cabaret performer Eartha Kitt and was treated to a standing ovation from the soldiers. Two years later she moved to Kings Cross, gained breast implants, took up hula dancing and earned her place in history as the very first Maori drag-queen.
Real life was however, far removed from the glittery dazzle of Carmen's outrageous eyelashes, juicy red lips and elaborate costumes. The police were heavy, regularly assaulting drag performers, harassing lesbian, gay or transgender people for "offensive behaviour" such as men wearing female clothing. Carmen was locked up in Long Bay prison about a dozen times, charged and arrested even though no crime had been committed.
So she came home to Aotearoa and establishing Carmen's International Coffee Lounge - a site of significance for visitors to Wellington and a haven of sorts for several Members of Parliament. It was about this time that Carmen was summoned before the Privileges Committee by Robert Muldoon for daring to suggest some MPs were gay or bisexual.
Her description of that meeting just has to be on the record: "At 9.30am sharp I had a black, chauffeur-driven limousine pick me up from Carmen’s International Coffee lounge and convey me to Parliament... I've always thought that black made a woman of my complexion and stature look so dignified. If I say it myself, my overall appearance that day was stunning. I accentuated my long auburn hair, turning it into a pillar with the deft use of four small wigs. To give a further illusion of height I wore very high platform shoes which were then in fashion. I think that what thrilled me most was the fact that all work seemed to have stopped on the Beehive complex construction site next to Parliament. The workers crowded the Beehive scaffolding to whistle, cheer and clap me as I posed..."
Once inside the Committee room, the actual hearing didn't take long. On the panel were Sir Wallace Rowling, Sir Robert Muldoon, Dr Martin Findlay, Bob Tizard, and Brian Talboys. Again in Carmen’s own words: "Looking at all those stern faces staring at me I felt like Sinderfella locked in a room with the Muggerly Sisters."
Her political career didn't stop at that one encounter. In 1977 Carmen ran for Mayor of Wellington campaigning for bars to be open past midnight, for the drinking age to be lowered to 18, for prostitution to be made legal, for homosexual acts to be de-criminalised and for sex education in schools – all which have now been achieved. We have come a long way but not far enough to address issues for the transgender community.
She was intolerant of hypocrisy – she challenged the overt discrimination of the time, and in that sense truly paved the way in providing a safe place for people to just be. Scandalous, fascinating, flamboyant, a trailblazer – there are many ways in which we can describe the one and only Carmen. But perhaps her greatest attribute was as a friend to many. She befriended some of our most vulnerable - breaking down barriers - seeking to promote acceptance of anyone within the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersexual community.
Wellington was a richer place for her distinctive and distinguished presence. In 2006 she was presented with the Absolutely Positive Wellingtonian Award at the occasion of her 70th birthday. Today, as we reflect on the full impact of her life in political and community spheres it is almost breath-taking to consider her place in history as an entertainer, business woman, a confidante of the rich and famous and a human rights activist to name a few. But there are others here who know her far more intimately – and I mihi to the Rupe whanau, her close friends Robin Waerea and Jurgen Hoffman, the ladies of the night, her street friends, her community, her whanau, hapu and iwi.
As a small boy, Trevor Rupe wanted to be a nun or failing that a famous film star. When we said farewell to Carmen two years ago, we grieved the loss of a most remarkable New Zealander, famous beyond her wildest dreams, a champion of difference, a voice for those society often failed to recognise. Today, in this special celebration of all she represents, we must indeed, have a ball and treasure, in our own way, the Icon that once passed our way. Tena tatou katoa.