Last Saturday marked the first anniversary of the passing of our darling diva Carmen Rupe on December 15, 2011. Carmen was the glitter on the streets of inner city Sydney for decades and her story invigorated, inspired and enthralled a multitude on both sides of the Tasman.
Loved and admired within our transgendered community, Carmen became an icon to the wider GLBTI community in Australia and New Zealand. As her star spiralled ever higher, Carmen was increasingly embraced as a symbol of kindness, tolerance and diversity by sections of mainstream society on both sides of the pond.
To many who knew or simply admired her, Carmen personified that generation of pioneering GLBTI community leaders who led the charge out of that repressive closet where people of difference been imprisoned for thousands of years.
In finding the courage to place their heads above the parapet and take a stand against ignorance, intolerance and homophobic hatred during the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s – long before it was ever safe nor hip to do so – Carmen, along with other human rights trailblazers of that generation, helped reshape our society in ways that seemed utterly inconceivable to many at that time. It is that courage and determination in the face of adversity displayed by Carmen and her peers during those harsher times which laid the foundations for the relatively more tolerant, inclusive society we enjoy today; a society in which those of us who’ve followed in her high heeled footsteps now live relatively unencumbered by the kind of institutionalised bigotry once so common.
In facing the same all pervasive ignorance and homophobia which saw many of our communities brave pioneers systematically ridiculed, beaten and spat upon during that era, as a Maori arriving here in 1959, Carmen bore an even uglier burden: that of racism, still deeply entrenched in Australian culture at that time.
Amidst the glitz and glamour of Carmen’s many life achievements as an entertainer, media darling, charity queen, activist and cultural icon, it’s easily forgotten what courage it must have taken for a quiet Maori boy from rural New Zealand to come here in 1959 aspiring to fame and fortune as a drag artist and female impersonator.
It is that courage, tempered by the amazing empathy and kindness Carmen demonstrated to others over the course of her lifetime that saw her come to be revered by many as Sydney’s patron saint of outsiders. For others, Carmen’s life achievements in the face of such adversity make her an antipodean Rosa Parks, the heroine of the US Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ‘60s who through one simple act of resistance – refusing to ride at the back of the bus as proscribed under the racial segregation laws of that time – inspired a generation Like Rosa Parks, Carmen refused to live constrained by the bigotry of others and helped change our world for the better, by daring not only to dream but to pursue those dreams with passion In the process, Carmen blazed a beautifully scented trail for all of us who follow in her glittering footsteps
This is the legacy we remember and celebrate. One that we hope our wider community will continue to recognise for many years to come
The Carmen Rupe Memorial Trust will officially launch as part of the 2013 Sydney Mardi Gras Festival at Slide on Tuesday, February 26, 2013.