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14 June 2020

Queens Liberation Front (QLF)

The post-Stonewall activist organizations:

While QLF and STAR were run by trans women, trans women also played significant roles in GLF and GAA. 

Queens Liberation Front (QLF)
StreetTransvestite Action Revolutionaries. (also Part III of Sylvia Rivera)
Gay Liberation Front (GLF) - New York
Gay Activists Alliance (GAA)
Gay Liberation Front (GLF) - London

See also The Five Years Following Stonewall - A New York Timeline



The Queens Liberation Front was the major New York social and activist group for trans persons in the 1970s. It was founded in 1970 by the future Barbara De Lamere (using her stage name of Bunny Eisenhower – she was a member of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company), Lee Brewster (who later ran Lee’s Mardi Gras transvestite boutique), Bebe Scarpinato (a teacher), Vicky West (artist) and Chris Moore (a Jewel Box Revue performer).

Vicky, Chris and Lee met as members of the New York branch of the homophile Mattachine Society. Lee had been organizing drag balls as fund raisers for Mattachine, but had become dispirited given the Mattachine’s disinterest in drag and trans issues. Following the Stonewall riots in June 1969, it was time for a specifically trans group. Bebe joined soon afterwards.

Initially the group was called just Queens, and issued a prospectus declaring two goals.
1. RIGHT TO CONGREGATE;
In New York the license for a drag ball or rather dance permit stated that men dressed in the female attire were not to be permitted on the premises of said dance.
2. RIGHT TO DRESS AS WE SEE FIT …………………………………
We feel that the wearing of a particular article of clothing doesn't make one a criminal. We hope to get a ruling adopting the law presently used in the state of Hawaii. It has been interpreted to mean that one may wear the clothing of the opposite sex as long as he does not deceive others. If one wears a button stating that one is a male it takes away all criminal aspects of cross-dressing.

Shortly afterwards the name was changed to Queens Liberation Front.

The QLF participated in and contributed financially to the first Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade in June 1970 - the world's first gay pride march. They were advised by the parade committee that the police might arrest them if they were in drag. However as their raison d’etre was to change the law on that very issue, this was the best time to start doing so. As it went, the police were friendly and no-one was arrested.

Shortly afterwards they published the first issue of their magazine Drag, a magazine of Transvestism, which would run for over 10 years, reach a circulation of over 3,500, and was much more political than Female Mimics, Transvestia or the by then defunct Turnabout. The first edition opened with a call to arms:
“Each day, as I'm propagandizing the plight of the drag queen, I run into the attitude that drag or as the heterosexual transvites call it, dressing, will never be legalized here in the United States. Even the transvestite and drag queen, himself feels that way. What they don't realize is, that this was the exact attitude towards the legalization of homosexuality, 15 years ago. Today, with the legalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults in England, it is now a possible dream here in the States.
We are in our infancy, in gaining acceptance in that department. We hope to gain a lot from our homosexual brothers, who have unashamedly paved the way for us. Now, heterosexual, homosexual, part-time or full-time drag queen, it's time for us to come down off our 'queenly’ throne and go out amongst the 'common' people and let them know that we're really people, with very REAL feelings.
WE WANT OUR RIGHTS GIVEN US AS CITIZENS OF THESE UNITED STATES AND REFUSE TO BE MADE CRIMINALS ANY LONGER!
We ve got a long way to go, baby, until it's a possible dream for us; but we have to start sometime and somewhere.' Now is the time, as most attitudes are being challenged and we're getting onto the bandwagon and hope to have all of you jump on it with us. . … we're coming out! …' Fighting ..

Of course, the same issue also contained a discussion about the difference between ‘drag queen’ and ‘transvestite”; the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade; John Hansen, the cis-het actor who played Christine Jorgensen in the film about her; the drag queen picket of the opening of John Osborne’s play, A Patriot for Me, on Broadway; photos of queens; and cartoons.

Vicky was the art director, and drew the cover pictures. Lee had been the initial editor, but as he became bored, Bebe took over. Linda Lee became the West Coast Editor.

In the mid-1960s, the New York State Liquor Authority had it in for bars that catered to gays and/or trans persons. A victory had been won on appeal by the Julius Restaurant, 159 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village, in 1966-7 with a ruling that having its licence suspended for serving homosexuals violated equal protection rights in the state and Federal constitutions. However problems remained as noted by Mattachine and Stonewall lawyer, Enid Gerling. Under city ordinances a bar or club could be closed and patrons arrested, simply because a single person, deemed to be cross-dressed, was present. In addition, Section 250.15 of the 1965 Anti-Mask: New York Penal Law (which is still in effect) criminalizes "the wearing of mask or disguises by three or more persons in a public place” however it is permitted “when it occurs in connection with a masquerade party or like entertainment if … permission is first obtained from the police or other appropriate agency.” However the application for the license specifically stated that “males dressed in female attire” were not to be admitted.  The QLF  and its lawyers pressed the city authorities on the matter. They also reminded them of a declaration by Mattachine a few years earlier:
“Drag queens and transvestites assume, quite rightly, that they will be welcome at any function given by a homosexual organization. Even if we wanted to exclude them, as the law says we should, we wouldn’t know how to. Most drag queens and transvestites, when they choose to mimic women, do it so well that it is impossible to know their genital sex without making a physical examination. Obviously, we cannot ask every apparent female who attends our parties to submit to a check of their genitalia.”
The ordinance that the bar be closed, and the anti-drag clause on the masquerade application were both struck. Furthermore the words "homosexuals, lesbians, or persons pretending to be ..." were also removed, thus decriminalising gay clubs and parties.

This was announced in Issue 6 of Drag Magazine. (Online) The first goal from the 1969 prospectus, the Right to Congregate, was declared achieved.

Lee Brewster announced that the 30 October 1970 QLF Halloween Ball was therefore the first ‘legal’ drag ball in New York.

Lee appeared at a Gay Activists Alliance meeting 18 November 1971, to complain that ‘straight homosexuals’ were willing to drop transvestites in their lobbying to outlaw discrimination in the hiring of homosexuals by city agencies. QLF testified before the New York City Council's General Welfare committee. The Gay Activist reported:
" 'Bebe' Scarpi, a transvestite in male attire, gave testimony on the minority group, he pointed out that transvestites used the men's room because they 'd been warned they would be subject to arrest if they entered the ladies room. And even transvestites had to heed the call of nature. Bebe, a student at Queens College, gave what amounted to a short course on the lifestyle and problems of transvestites with such charm, ready wit and intelligence, that even the Councilmen appeared beguiled. … Chairman Sharison seemed unable to comprehend that some transvestites were heterosexual. He wanted to know whether Bebe believed transvestites would be protected by Intro 475. 'Only as a homosexual, not as a transvestite', Bebe explained, and perhaps the councilman would care to enact legislation protecting the transvestite." (Quoted in Cohen p 150)
In 1973 the committee was still blocked in its attempt to pass a bill to ban discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing and public accommodation. To get it passed, an amendment was proposed that nothing in the definition of sexual orientation “shall be construed to bear upon the standards of attire or dress code". Bebe, as QLF director, was put in the uncomfortable position of submitting to this wording or seeing the bill fail.

For the Christopher Street Liberation Day in June 1973, Bebe went to the 82 Club and got the showgirls, in full regalia to march behind an 82 Club banner. QLF and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) were adjacent in the march. Sylvia Rivera’s impassioned speech for Gay Power was followed by Jean O’Leary of Lesbian Feminist Liberation who asserted biological sex, and that Sylvia was “a genital male”. She read a statement on behalf of 100 women that read, in part,
"We support the right of every person to dress in the way that she or he wishes. But we are opposed to the exploitation of women by men for entertainment or profit."
She was booed, and MC, Vito Russo, the film historian, asked the crowd to let her continue. Lee Brewster jumped onstage and responded,
"You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!”
The situation was calmed only when performer Bette Midler took to the stage and sang.

                                                               ---

The balls arranged by Lee and QLF were held at the Diplomat hotel on West 43rd Street and became so fashionable that the final one, in 1973, was attended by the real Jacqueline Susann, Carol Channing and Shirley MacLaine.

By 1980 Drag Magazine was including explicate photographs.

Lee Brewster continued his business Lee’s Mardi Gras, the largest retail concern in the US aimed at trans and drag persons. The business continued for over 30 years at various locations around Manhattan. It carried 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.

Brewster continued to answer to ‘Mr’ in the style of old-time drag performers. He died in 2000 age 57 after a battle with cancer.

The thespian referred to as Bunny Eisenhower, who had previously been in a long-term gay relationship, gave up acting for a heterosexual marriage, but afterwards she completed transition in 1982 as Barbara de Lamere, and continued as an LGBT activist into the 1990s.

Chris Moore was a constant at QLF parties, but after a few years she was diagnosed with cancer. She was able to fight it for over five years. Lee Brewster put on a special ball for Chris so that she could perform and be the star, and Vicky drew her for the cover of Drag Magazine 3.11. She died in 1975.

Vicki West continued to work as a man in the art department at the publisher Henry N Abrams rising to be Executive Art Director. She contributed to Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings, The Art of Walt Disney, Windows at Tiffany’s, The History of Modern Art, Impressionism. She became a friend of photographer Mariette Pathy Allen and is featured in Allen’s 1989 book, Transformations. Vicky retired in 2000, died in 2005 age 70 and is interred at the US Military's Arlington National Cemetery.

Bebe Scarpinato worked as a school teacher and principal. She was also a stripper, and later worked at Lee’s Mardi Gras. She died in 2019, age 68. In addition to being director of the Queens Liberation Front (QLF), she was on the founding board of the National Gay Task Force and was active in planning the fourth Christopher Street Liberation Day, and was active in Gay Activists Alliance and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.


  • “Hail to Queens”. New York Mattachine Times. Nov 1970, 1,2,. Reprinted in Marc Stein (ed). The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History. New York University Press, 2019: 240.
  • “Transvestite and Transsexual Liberation”. Gay Dealer, Dec 1970, 9. Reprinted in Marc Stein (ed). The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History. New York University Press, 2019: 212.
  • Guy Charles. “Intro 475 Controversy: Won’t Be Sacrificial Lambs, Drags Vow” The Advocate, 22 Dec. 1971, 12. Reprinted in Marc Stein (ed). The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History. New York University Press, 2019: 212: 260.
  • Arthur David Kahn. The Many Faces of Gay: Activists Who Are Changing the Nation. Praeger, 1997: 3, 15-20, 266-9.
  • 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.
  • Stephen L. Cohen. The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail. Routledge, 2007: 9, 91, 94, 95-6, 142-5, 149, 150-2, 160, 246n28, 254n251,
  • JD Doyle. “Lee Brewster’s Mardi Gras Ball Ball 1972”. Queer Music Heritage. Online.
  • Marc Stein. Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement. Routledge, 2012: 83, 87, 103, 113.
  • Marc Stein (ed). The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History. New York University Press, 2019: 5, 187, 212-3, 240-2, 260, 296, 328n13.

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There is no apostrophe on Queens Liberation Front, presumably because it was initially simply called Queens. There is no connotation of or reference to the New York borough called Queens – which also has no apostrophe.

Some books about Stonewall and its effects make no mention at all of the Queens Liberation Front: Stonewall (Duberman), Stonewall (Carter), In Search of Stonewall (Schneider – review), The Stonewall Reader (Bauman – review – This book totally ignores several other New York trans activists in addition to QLF, but finds room for Virginia Prince, from Los Angeles, to discuss being divorced by wife no 1, and marrying wife no 2).

There are two significantly different accounts of the Julius Bar court actions:

a) Duberman’s Stonewall p114-116, presents it as a Mattachine initiative. Three members tried several bars on 21 April 1966, announcing that they were homosexual and requesting alcoholic drinks. Several bars served them anyway, but the barman at Julius did not. Mattachine then filed a complaint with the State Liquor Authority (SLA), and announced that they would pay Julius’ legal fees. The SLA quickly announced that it would take no action, but the case was picked up by the Commission on Human Rights, and in 1967 an Appellate court ruled in their favor.

b) Crawford’s The Mafia and the Gays, p27-9, says otherwise. The Julius had been subjected to a NYPD visit 11 November 1965 with an officer reporting in very stereotyped and derogatory terms that a homosexual crowd frequented the bar. This resulted in a suspension of the Julius' liquor license on 1 April 1966. The bar management contested this as requiring them to violate equal protection rights in the constitution. The 1967 decision was an agreement with the argument put forth by the Julius management – which incidentally had supported the Mattachine ‘sip-in’ 21 April 1966.

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