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Carmen & Georgina

Meet Carmen Rupe and Georgina Beyer, two iconic trans women who forged a path for queer rights in Aotearoa.
Two transgender Māori women stand smiling. Carmen on the left is in a red cardigan over a black jewelled top, with sunglasses, red lips, and dark hair piled high. On the left, Georgina wears a black blazer over a red shirt and a honey blonde bob.
© New Zealand Herald

The queer protest movement in Aotearoa New Zealand has, unsurprisingly, been led by a diverse and colourful cast of characters. There are innumerable people who have been part of Aotearoa New Zealand’s queer protest history, and sadly we don’t have the room in this course to do them justice. Instead, we will look at two individuals who made a huge impact in their chosen sphere of activism; Carmen Rupe in community building, and Georgina Beyer in politics.

These two are both Māori transgender women. This is significant, because although important queer activists in Aotearoa New Zealand come in every flavour on the rainbow, and many (like SHE, and the Dorian Society) had started to organise, it was openly trans women and drag queens who led the charge for public acceptance. Many gay people of the time were more covert in their expression but the drag queens and trans women had “the courage to ‘come out’ and bear the brunt of straight scorn long before any of us dared to” making them, according to activist Sandy Gauntlett, “the very first freedom fighters in the gay movement”.

Māori. Transsexual. Sex worker.

Being at the intersection of all of these marginalised identities and being proud of it was – and in many ways still is – a political act, with a heavy price paid in public derision, oppression, and unfortunately, significant violence. The visible presence of these women in public life, let alone their significant personal legacies, marked watershed moments in the history of queer protest and queer rights in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Carmen Rupe

A framed picture of a young Carmen Rupe. She is wearing a sequined red gown and heels, with her arm resting on an intricate wicker chair. There is some writing on the picture, including 'Drag Legend' and 'Kiwi Carmen' Drag Legend: Kiwi Carmen, Victor Morey; photographer; 1963; Sydney. Purchased 2006. Te Papa (GH011920)

Trans woman, takatāpui, activist, drag queen, business women, mayoral candidate, sex worker, anti-discrimination activist, matriarch; Carmen Rupe (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Hauā, Ngāti Heke-a-Wai) was a star, around whom the queer (then ‘Kamp’) community in Wellington orbited. Carmen was the first openly gay and Māori drag queen in Wellington in the 1950s, recalling in a NZ Herald article that:

”It was very, very hard those days because the straight and square people beat you up, and punch you, and give you a hiding, so you have to be a good runner.”
Carmen was a disruptor. In 1966, nearly a decade before Aotearoa New Zealand had seen the organisation of formal gay rights groups, and before even the seminal Stonewall riots in America, Carmen had successfully challenged the courts for the right to wear ‘women’s’ clothing.
A framed vintage photograph of a Māori woman wearing an elaborate jewelled headpiece with hanging strands of beads. Her dark hair waves past her shoulders and she wears a plunging sleeved dress in swirling black and shades of red, orange, and tan.Kiwi Carmen, 1970, Wellington. Purchased 2006. Te Papa (GH011919)

Carmen’s downtown

A framed photograph of a shop on the side of the street. It is clearly vintage. The shop is named 'Carmens coffee lounge' and has been painted so that the blacked out windows form middle eastern palaces. Carmen’s Coffee Lounge, Unknown photographer; circa 1970s; Wellington. Purchased 2006. Te Papa (GH011916)
Carmen established several establishments in the city centre from the late 60s that created a haven of acceptance for the marginalised; employing drag queens, gay men and women, and transgender people at her coffee lounge/illicit bordello, nightclub, curio shops, and more. Her first venture was ‘Carmen’s Coffee Lounge’ (pictured), but the lavishly decorated Egyptian lounge proved so popular, several more soon followed.
This sense of community was a powerful force, protecting and empowering queer people from all walks of life to claim their identities, as well as offering support to Wellington’s homeless population. Her clientele came from all walks of life, including the odd celebrity and well-to-do political and community leaders, including the cis and straight. Her loud and proud presence pushed the needle in terms of what was acceptable at the time, and according to New Zealand Prostitutes Collective community liaison Chanel Hati:
“[S]he broke down the barriers of conservative ideals about what being trans, or being gay, or being anything other than the norm is…we stand on her shoulders.”
A black and white photograph. Carmen sits with a saucer in her hand, decked out like an exotic queen in an elaborate headpiece and sheer fabric dress, smiling at the camera. several men with teacups stand next to her, laughing. Maoritanga – Scenes from Maori Life, Carmen, Ans Westra; photographer; 1970s; Wellington. Purchased 1993 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (O.016233)

Carmen and politics

In 1976 Carmen found herself entangled in politics, after alluding publicly during a television interview to the closeted homosexuality of several Cabinet MPs. She was summoned in front of a Parliamentary Privileges Committee and after being found in breach of privilege, compelled to apologise.
The following year, 1977, she took her political presence into her own hands, becoming the first openly trans person in Aoteraoa New Zealand (and possibly the world) to run for mayoralty. Though ultimately unsuccessful, her Wellington campaign over 45 years ago was built on a progressive platform of changes that have all since come to pass, albeit a decade or four after Carmen brought them into the public consciousness.
These included removing the criminalisation of homosexual acts, abortions, and prostitution. The decriminalisation of all three of these has allowed for the safe provision of healthcare and social support to those previously marginalised by their situation.
A framed newspaper clipping. There is a large picture of Carmen, beaming. Her hair is high and she has on large earrings and a detailed collar. The headline reads 'Citizens for Carmen' and 'Carmen for Mayor'. Carmen for Mayor election advertisement. Unknown; 1977; Wellington. Purchased 2006. Te Papa (GH011913)

The Evergreen

Carmen’s Coffee Lounge was eventually taken over by Chrissy Witoko (Ngāti Kahungunu), Carmen’s contemporary and another fierce advocate for the queer community and their social welfare. The Evergreen was an official Gay and Lesbian Community Drop-In centre in the late eighties offering counselling and support as well as an organising space for queer activists. At night, it provided the same service for sex workers.

Community Work

Carmen continued in her activism and social support initiatives after she closed the doors of her Wellington establishments and moved to Sydney (returning regularly to Aoteraoa New Zealand as an esteemed guest for Pride events and trans rights conferences). In Sydney’s King Cross, Carmen continued to advocate for safe sex education and queer rights, as well as managing a small community centre and continuing her ongoing support of sex workers and the homeless.
This condom packet, produced by the NZ Aids Foundation (now Burnett Foundation Aotearoa), features Carmen Rupe promoting safe sex for a New Zealand AIDS Foundation campaign which was launched in October 2006 when Carmen turned 70 years old. Her message is printed inside: ‘Carmen attributes safe sex to her 70 years of a long and wonderful life.’
The front of a red maroon cardboard condom packet. The front features an oval picture of a smiling Carmen. The back of a red maroon cardboard condom packet. The back has a logo and links for the New Zealand Aids Foundation. The back also reads, 'Proper use of condoms for vaginal and anal sex prevents transmission of HIV and reduces the risk of other STI's.' Carmen condom packet, New Zealand AIDS Foundation; producer; 2006; New Zealand. Gift of the Burnett Foundation Aotearoa (formerly New Zealand AIDS Foundation), 2021. Te Papa (GH025747)


Glenda Hughes, who was a young police officer in Wellington in the 1970s reflects in a 2016 Stuff article:
”That group of trans people…took a lot of the prejudice out of Wellington and I think they did that by creating those spaces. It wasn’t easy in those days for them, but they were brave, strong, clever and they continued.”
Both Carmen and Chrissy’s impact is remembered with fierce warmth by the individuals who experienced their hospitality, those who in the decades since who have benefited from change wrought by their activism, and by the city of Wellington itself.
Two benches in the vicinity of their prior venues were unveiled in 2016, with plaques dedicated to the two queens. As part of the event, attendees signed two Intersex-Inclusive Pride flags – soon to be added to Te Papa’s collections.
Two benches on a city street. They are side by side, made of stained wood and metal. Each is draped with a modern intersectional pride flag covered in black marker signatures. Memorial seats for Carmen Rupe (left) and Chrissy Witoko (right) draped in the Intersex-Inclusive Pride flags, by Gwcreative, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The memory of Carmen still walks on Wellington’s iconic Cuba Street too, where the pedestrian traffic lights bear not a green man, but the figure of Carmen in her signature drag. The road of one crossing is painted in the bright colours of the rainbow pride flag.
Longtime friend Dana de Milo reflected in another 2016 Stuff article:
“For us, she was our rangatiratanga [leader], she was our queen. For us, she was an elder, a trailblazer before us.”
A close-up of a traffic light. The Green light is on, with the silhouette of a fabulous women, hair piled high, in heels. A close up of the Carmen Rupe pedestrian crossing light on the corner of Cuba and Vivian Streets, Wellington. Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0

Georgina Beyer

A smiling Georgina Beyer. She is wearing black, with a red ribbon and medal pinned to her chest. She is wearing drop earrings and has three white feathers displayed in her tight bun Georgina Beyer, after her investiture as MNZM, for services to LGBTIQA+ rights, at Government House, Wellington, on 19 October 2020. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0
Georgina Beyer, a Māori trans woman inspired by Carmen’s proud world, made history twice. The first was in 1995 when she became the first openly transgender mayor in the world. This achievement is made more surprising in that she did so in the heart of Aotearoa New Zealand farming country, Carterton in the Wairarapa; overwhelmingly white, rural, and conservative. But Georgina was more than a match for that environment, she had an articulate, to-the-point, ‘no bullshit’ manner that resonated with her community.
My mayoralty happened despite the conservative nature of my constituents, because I was upfront and honest about myself, had ability and was trusted.”
Windy City Times, 2008
Her entry into politics was influenced by a traumatic sexual assault by a group of men in Sydney in her early 20s. She did not report the attack to police, fearing she would not receive support due to her time as a sex worker and her gender identity, which had begun to emerge (and be punished) before she had even started school.

Protection for sex workers

Beyer made history again in 1999 when she was elected as an MP, the first openly transgender MP in the world. She was re-elected in 2002, and it was here that she dedicated herself to the progression of queer rights, and the protection of sex workers.
She revealed her history of sex work in an impassioned speech to parliament when advocating for the Prostitution Reform Act 2003, designed to decriminalise prostitution, safeguard the human rights of sex workers, protect them from exploitation and promote their welfare and occupational safety.
“I support this bill for all the prostitutes I have ever known who have died before the age of 20, because of the inhumanity and hypocrisy of a society that would not ever give them the chance to redeem whatever circumstances made them arrive in that industry. [Had this law been in place for me]… I might have been able to approach the authorities – the police in this case – and say: “I was raped, and, yes, I’m a prostitute, and, no, it was not right that I should have been raped, because I said no.”
Beyer’s plea, girded by her own experiences, changed the minds of three parliamentarians and the bill passed by one vote. According to the parliament website, “Research indicates that these sex workers are predominantly female (although there are significant numbers of transgender people), and are predominantly Māori or Pasifika.”

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Civil Unions

She went on to also support the Civil Union Act 2004, allowing couples of any gender to be united under the law (before gay marriage was eventually made legal in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2013, the first country in the Asia-Pacific to do so). The Act was contentious, as illustrated by the two submissions shown below.
Georgina is remembered for a fraught confrontation she had on the steps of parliament with protesting members of the Destiny Church group opposing the Act. As Aotearoa New Zealand finance minister and former deputy prime minister (and gay man) Grant Robertson recalls in a Guardian article:
”I will always remember her courage. I was with her on the steps of parliament when … [the] mob arrived to oppose civil unions, and then followed her when she went to confront them. With a mixture of awe and genuine fear for her safety, I saw the very best of Georgina that day.”
You can hear Georgina’s words on that day in the video below.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Georgina herself was more humble, reflecting in a 2018 Spinoff article that:
”You have to remember: law is easy to change, attitudes throughout a country are not. It takes generations and role models to show the nation that we’re not the horrible, demented, crazy people they might think we are.”

Life after Politics

Beyer eventually resigned from Parliament, in large part due to an ideological dispute over Māori Land rights, where she found her opinion as a Māori woman did not align with the stance of her Party at the time. It was a conscience matter that she was unwilling to continue to compromise on. After her time in the halls of power, Beyer continued her activism, confirming through a challenge to the Waitangi Tribunal and resolved by the Human Rights Commission, that queer Māori identities would be covered by anti-discrimination legislation. She also spoke around the world on LGBTQIA+ rights. In 2020, Beyer was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to LGBTIQA+ rights.
Georgina passed away in March of 2023 after a long illness, and was remembered around the world for breaking barriers, advocating for queer rights, and for her courage and often racy sense of humour. When she became a member of parliament she made the following memorable crack:
”I was quoted once as saying: “This was the stallion who became a gelding, and now she is a mayor [mare].’’ I suppose I have to say that I have now found myself to be a member! I have come full circle, so to speak.”

Watch the trailer for a documentary about Beyer, including her maiden speech to parliament, here:

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Further resources

Learn more about Carmen Rupe and the objects related to her in their collections in this Te Papa article and on Te Papa Collections Online

Carmen Rupe biography, Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Read more about the history of Wellingtons queer nightlife in this Te Papa article

Read more about the history of Wellington’s queer nightlife in this Te Papa article

Te Papa cares for a large number of objects and photographs about Carmen

Read more about the important activism of Wellington’s early trans leaders

Carmen’s silhouette lights up Cuba St again, 2016 RNZ article

Watch ‘Carmen’, a full length documentary on Carmen Rupe

Drag in 1970s Aotearoa New Zealand

Short interview with Georgina Beyer from the NZ Herald webseries “Trailblazers”

Georgina Beyer episode of “Matangireia: Māori Political Legacies”, reflecting on the careers of former Māori MPs

Watch ‘Georgie Girl’, a documentary on the life of Georgina Beyer

Learn more about Georgina Beyer in this Spinoff article

and this RNZ article

Carmen and Georgina are just two stars in a constellation of notable queer activist in Aotearoa. You can explore more people and stories at Pride NZ, the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand (LAGANZ) | Te Puranga Takatapui o Aotearoa, and the Te Papa LGBTQI+ Hub.

© Te Papa. All rights Reserved
This article is from the free online

The History of Protest in Aotearoa New Zealand

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