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03 October 2009

Lee Brewster (1943 - 2000) retailer, activist.

++revised October 2015 to incorparate material from Cohen's  The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York.

Lee was raised in the coal mining areas of West Virginia. As a young man he worked in finger-printing for the FBI, but was fired when it was suspected that he might be gay.

Lee Brewster with tiara and sign.  Cohen p143.
On moving to New York, he organized drag balls as fund raisers for the Mattachine Society. However they were disinterested in drag queens and other transies, so in 1970 he and thespian Bunny Eisenhower founded the Queens Liberation Front, and Brewster began publishing Drag, one of the more political transgender publications of the 1970s, which ran for 10 years.

++They campaigned and hired lawyers to de-criminalize cross-dressing in New York, which was achieved in 1971. Previously, under city ordinances a bar or club could be closed and patrons arrested, simply because a single person, deemed to be crossdressed, was present.  Furthermore the words "homosexuals, lesbians, or persons pretending to be ..." were also struck, thus decriminalizing gay clubs and parties.   In addition, the still extant 1965 Anti-Mask: New York Penal Law criminalizing "the wearing of mask or disguises by three or more persons in a public place" was found inapplicable to those in drag.

They organized with Sylvia Rivera.

The balls he organized continued until 1973 – the last one was attended by the real versions of Jacqueline Susann, Carol Channing and Shirley MacLaine.

Lee was the proprietor of the drag emporium Lee's Mardi Gras – in business for 30 years at various locations around Manhattan, carrying a large stock of clothes, prosthetics and books. In addition to individual clients, the shop supplied costumes for Broadway, television and movies, in particular To Wong Foo and The Birdcage.

In 1999  Lee donated his extensive library  to the Wollman Archives of Transgender History and Culture, curated by Rusty Rae Moore at Transy House.

He continued to answer to ‘Mr’ in the style of old-time drag performers.

Lee died after a battle with cancer.
  • Holly Brubach. Girlfriend: Men, Women, and Drag. Random House, 1999: 133-8.
  • Jack Nichols. “Lee Brewster Dies at 57: Pioneering Transvestite Activist”. Gay Today. 2000. Online
  • Douglas Martin. “Lee Brewster, 57, Style Guru For World's Cross-Dressers”. New York Times May, 24, 2000.  Online.
  • Susan Stryker. “Brewster, Lee”. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History in America. 2005. 
  • Stephen L. Cohen. The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail. Routledge, 2007: 91, 94, 142-3, 149, 151-2, 160, 246n28, 254n251,
 Matt & Andrej Koymasky    Queer Music Heritage    


  1. I was a regular client with Lee as a young transgendered person. I was so happy to venture into his shop (located above a wine shop on 10th Ave. between 41st.& 42nd. in NYC. (S)he made me feel so at home on my first vist. No judgement, no ridicule. I accepted who I was with that simple walk up the stairs. What a paradise I found! When I heard of his death (after the move to 14th street) I was very sad. My mentor. My Lee!!!

  2. I miss Lee and the fun times working at Lee's Mardi Gras!
    And the feasts she would make us, oh GOD.

  3. Anonymous4/2/12 08:22

    In the 70's I met Lee at a party she gave at a bar called Mothers in the Village. She told me I would look great with makeup and I should come in to her shop. I was such a fool. i didn't go because I was too scared. I regret that to this day.

  4. in the early 1980's I was a regular at the shop at 14th street, even worked the street for a week before being frightened out of it one night. It was an aming place- an amazing time. He was an amazing person and a titan in the community. He will not be forgotten.

  5. Stephanie Julianna. Lee was my mentor and helped me finally be proud of my crossdressing. He gave me a free makeover session at the Mardi Gras store when it was on 10th that ended with my leaving fully enfemme in full daylight for the first time day or night. That was 1980. Inever looked back and perfected makeup techniques that surpassed what Lee taught me and that I in turn shared with him over the years. I enjoyed trips to PTown with his group and he kept my feet on the ground when I needed real help. I'm a better person for having had Lee in my life. I miss him dearly.


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