drag queen lightsPhoto: Robert Kitchin


Wellington, with its stuffy capital city bureaucracy,  actually has a liberal outlook and was once home to the most famous drag queen in Australasia. Cultural icon, Carmen Rupe was a colourful character who is now immortalized by four pedestrian traffic lights in Cuba Street in the central city. It is believed to be the first traffic light illustration of a drag queen in the world.  The lights were officially unveiled this month on the 30th anniversary of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill coming into effect. It’s ironic that a person known for effectively creating Wellington’s red light district, should be remembered with a green light. Perhaps it says something about how far the nation has come in accepting its gay community.

Trevor Rupe began wearing his mother’s clothing at the age of 11 and from that time, he decided to be true to his deep feelings and live his life as a woman. He changed his name and identity after being inspired by black actress Dorothy Dandridge in the musical ‘Carmen Jones’.  From then on, the future iconic activist was simply known as Carmen.


Carmen worked hard to help gay people at a time when homosexual activity was illegal. Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge was located right beside the Salvation Army in Vivian Street. It served basic snacks but the attractive waiters and waitresses, each carefully selected by Carmen, were all available for the clients who frequented the place. A code known as ‘the cups’ was used when ‘ordering’ a staff member for an ‘intimate experience’. The cups were arranged in a certain way to indicate a customer’s choice so no awkward conversation was needed.

Around the corner, Carmen’s Le Balcon Variety Night Club, usually called the Balcony, was the city’s most notorious strip club and it certainly added some spice to the city’s nightlife. Most of the strippers were trans gender people who started each performance in spectacular costumes. With characters like ‘Daddy’s Girl’,  ‘Spider Woman’ ,’Scarlet O’Hara’ and ‘Jungle Slave Girl’, the shows were sure to provide erotic entertainment found nowhere else in New Zealand at the time. I can remember visiting Wellington as a boy and being driven past the Balcony in the daytime and being told in a somewhat reverent tone that is was Carmen’s club and sexy things went on there. I had the impression that many locals were proud to have such ‘modern things’ going on in their city. It somehow made the place more cosmopolitan.


When she failed in her bid to become Wellington’s mayor in 1977,  Carmen moved to Sydney where she became enthusiastically involved in the Kings Cross nightlife. She was the first Maori drag queen in Australia and one of her memorable performances was to dance the hula with a live snake!  For a time, she was a member of the raunchy Les Girls review and was locked up in prison on 12 occasions but she claimed the experiences made her a stronger person and helped focus her on the work that needed to be done to help others like her. During her time in Sydney, Carmen also became a driving force in GLBT issues and continued to work for gay rights right up to her death in 2011. Today, the Carmen Rupe Memorial Trust carries out charitable work for the gay community.


Two years ago, well respected Wellington resident and famous suffragette Kate Shepherd, was also honoured with her outline featured on traffic lights. Fittingly, these lights are located on a street near the parliament buildings.