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In Wellington, Carmen started Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge, which was a cafe serving basic foods, coffee, tea, as well as functioning as the front for a brothel business. While in Sydney, Carmen came into the world of drag and sex work. She began a successful career as a performer, often using hula and sometimes live snakes.

As a political candidate, Carmen sought to decriminalise sex work, legalise gay marriage and fight for transgender rights. In 2016, Carmen’s silhouette replaced the standard ‘Walking Man’ on the Cuba Street crossing lights in Wellington, in recognition of her work and influence on Wellington and Aotearoa as whole.

Passport photo of Carmen Rupe attached to application file
Reference: AAAC 25277 W5972 Box 1 4/6/111
A photo from Carmen's passport application file

At Archives New Zealand, we hold a particularly interesting file: that of an investigation into an application Carmen made for a renewed passport. Carmen applied for a new passport whilst living in Sydney in 1982. She requested that a ‘-’ be put in place as her gender marker, as opposed to the standard of the time which was ‘M’ or ‘F’.

This request, while unusual, complied with recommendations from the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation). From the correspondence in this file we can tell that Carmen was not required to sign a statutory declaration, but she was required to provide no less than six supporting letters from medical professionals. These letters declared her lived experience as a trans woman, ‘under the circumstances it would be embarrassing to have the sex shown as ‘male’ on the passport’. In this regard, it is possible Carmen was one of the first people to have ‘-’ as their ‘Sex’ on a passport.

Carmen’s ‘-’ preceded the modern option of having ‘X’ as a ‘Sex’ marker. However, the process of obtaining a statutory declaration for this is still difficult and sometimes costly. This makes it hard for trans, takatāpui, non-binary and intersex people to be able to have identity documents that accurately reflect their gender and sex. If Carmen had an accurate gender marker on her birth certificate to begin with, this passport investigation file wouldn’t exist, and it would have been a much easier process for her.

The Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Act (BDMRRA), instated in 1995, is currently in the process of being updated to make changing gender markers on birth certificates a simpler process. The current process requires applicants to go through the Family Court with a lawyer, which can be financially difficult or impossible for people on low incomes. This reform would mean that the process for changing gender markers on birth certificates would be the same as that for passports and driver licenses; requiring only a statutory declaration. This would make it much easier for takatāpui, transgender, non-binary and intersex people, like Carmen, to have identity documents that are accurate and reflect their whole selves.


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