Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Carmen, a gay rights advocate and Cuba St icon? Really?

It’s funny how people become what the media wants them to become. Take the late Carmen Rupe, whose distinctive silhouette now appears in the green-for-go pedestrian traffic lights (wouldn’t red have been more appropriate?) on Wellington’s Cuba St.

Carmen is routinely portrayed in the media these days as a champion of homosexual law reform and crusader for trans-gender people. The Dominion Post yesterday called her a gay rights advocate; on TV3 last night she was a “campaigner against discrimination”. But that’s not how I, or many others who were around Wellington when Carmen was active, remember her.

Carmen may have given encouragement to trans-gender people – and possibly gays too – by the mere fact of her existence, and through her high profile around Wellington. To that extent she may have served as a role model, but I don’t recall her actively campaigning for causes. Sure, she once ran for the Wellington mayoralty, but that was a prank perpetrated by Bob Jones. No one took her candidacy seriously.

In any case, Carmen’s prominence in Wellington suggested that the city was quite relaxed about trans-gender people, even in the 1960s and 70s. Certainly, she didn’t seem to suffer any discrimination personally. She was an identity. The city was proud of her. Locals would take out-of-towners to her coffee bar hoping for a sight of her. But that was about as far as it went. She never, to my knowledge, agitated politically for greater sexual freedom. That’s a revisionist invention by people who weren’t around during Carmen’s heyday – younger journalists, for instance, and Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown.

And here’s another thing. Carmen is now celebrated as a “Cuba St icon”, which is odd because she was associated with Vivian St. That’s where Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge was located. Later, she opened a strip club, the Balcony – but that was on Victoria St, roughly where the Wellington public library now stands.

Wade-Brown is reported as saying Carmen was "synonymous with Cuba St", but how would she know? She arrived in Wellington in 1983, by which time I suspect Carmen had probably already moved to Kings Cross, Sydney. It may suit Wellington now to hail Carmen as a Cuba St figure, because it conveniently matches the bohemian image the street has acquired over the past couple of decades. But Cuba St in Carmen’s time was a rundown, dreary thoroughfare with none of the vibrancy and atmosphere we associate it with today.

Cuba St had a few notable assets – Fuller Fulton’s supermarket, the Karantze Brothers grill room, Le Normandie restaurant – but nothing raunchy or racy. Even the legendary Bistro Bar at the Royal Oak Hotel, gathering place for Wellington’s demimonde, was around the corner on Dixon St.

Cuba St was associated more with shuffling derelicts. But as the famous quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance goes: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

No comments: