We celebrate the contribution of Carmen Rupe as the last of her Taonga are accepted into the existing collection at Te Papa. Let’s take a moment to reflect on her legacy.
Much has been made of Carmen’s vibrancy and uncompromising values when it came to achieving social change. She is legendary in the truest of senses; her stories live on as largely now as they did before her passing and with time they will not lose their glow. We will look back at her life with our rose-tinted glasses and smile at how fabulous she was.
It seems somehow ironic that at a time when we pat ourselves on the back for realising many of the visions that Carmen articulated in the’60s and ’70s, that we seem to have glossed over the fact that she did not actually get to share personally in many of those successes, and lived the last of her days in Sydney. We say she was one of our own, but how much of ‘us’ did we actually give her? We say we loved, admired and treasured her; but we did it from afar.
I am grateful to people like David Hartnell, Robin Waerea, Jurgen Hoffman and many of her other friends for cherishing and supporting her in the way that she deserved. They made a promise to her that they would bring her gifts to Te Papa, and they kept that promise. I am similarly grateful for the recognition that was bestowed upon Carmen by Te Papa at the very moving powhiri on Friday 01 November 2013. I loved the beautiful acknowledgement by Celia Wade-Brown the Mayor of Wellington, and I was humbled by the words of the Honorable Tariana Turia not just for Carmen, but for our community. But where is our community? How could Carmen be ‘ours’ more now that she is no longer with us than
When Bob Jones funded Carmen’s 1977 bid for the Wellington mayoralty he was grand-standing behind her courage, and much of it was about shock value. She was mocked and her ideas around sexuality, prostitution, liquor licensing etc treated as absurd at the time. It was inconceivable that all of these things would actually come to pass. But they did. when she was`actually living and breathing beside us? I think we have some lessons to learn. We should not leave it until people have passed or moved from within our midst to embrace them unconditionally.
It is almost impossible for us to overstate the impact of Carmen on our social fabric. I remember her being talked about at the dinner table when I was 10 years old in 1977, and not in favourable terms. At that age I already knew I was different and as I sat quietly feeling myself growing red and shovelling peas into my mouth, all I could think of was how much I wanted to see this ‘creature’, as my mother described her.
As her personally chosen objects were being accepted into the museum, I felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer sense of loss and tragedy that g peas into my mouth, all I could think of was how much I wanted to see this ‘creature’, as my mother described her.
In saying that, I have no real idea if Carmen would have even wanted that, but what I do know is that it is time for us to follow Carmen’s example and see that courage needs to come from within. Perhaps today our demons do not come in the shape of a Beehive, or a health system or the institution of marriage. Today, they come from a place far closer to home – our own attitudes towards each other. we all share, whether we know it or not. A sense of shame was also in my heart as I reflected on how we treat our elders within our wider GLBTI community. It just seems wrong to me that this woman was not even able to live out the last of her days in the very place where her legacy lives on; in the city that purports to call her ‘ours’.
As a continuation of Carmen’s journey, let’s think a little more deeply and use her example to propel us as boldly, as loudly and with as much dignity as she did to make change.
For me, the legacy of Carmen does not lie in film clips and documentaries, tell-all biographies, portraits, photos in the National Library, outrageous costumes and fabulous jewellery stowed in Te Papa, or in the anecdotes and stories. These are things that will help us remember, but her true legacy lies in society’s acceptance of me and my partner openly holding hands in public; it shows itself in the way I unashamedly hug and kiss my friends in the street; and it blesses me when I see my life in comparison with the current horrific treatment of GLBTI people in many other less-enlightened countries. One more thing I would like to see is for us to treasure our people as much when they are with us as we do when they have passed.
Carmen, you are and always will be beautiful. Always.
Article | Vaughan Meneses.
Photos | Main Carmen at her 70th Birthday Party in Sydney by John Stanley. www.john-stanley.com. Body | Carmen’s powhiri at the marae at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 01 November 2013 by Alex Efimoff. www.pro-photography.co