Many thanks to Eli Boldt, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern, for this guest post. Boldt was one of several interns identifying and writing stories about underrepresented topics for Smithsonian Affiliations. This is one of two stories they completed this summer. For more LGBTQ+ resources from the Smithsonian, visit the Pride events pages.
Thursday afternoon, March 2, 2023, Bill Lee signed into law a bill that banned gender-affirming care for minors. On the same day, Lee, a Republican governor in Tennessee, signed a bill that restricted drag performance.
Over 50 years earlier, Lee Brewster and Bunny Eisenhower, two figures vocal in and vital to the drag and trans* movement, founded Queens Liberation Front (QLF). The founding was in response to the Stonewall Uprising that had happened a year earlier and the following explosion of the gay rights movement. QLF officially began operations when it participated in the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade. Brewster, Eisenhower and others marched in the parade. The experience — inked in words as well as many black and white photographs of the parade — is detailed in the first issue of Drag Magazine. Drag was first published in 1971, by QLF. It was originally called Drag Queens, but later shortened to Drag. The parade is described in three of the first few pages of the first issue. Brewster and Eisenhower proudly publish themselves marching, holding banners, under signs, in heels. Among the photos is a paragraph detailing how QLF was advised not to show up in drag. The police would arrest them. “However, since the purpose of the organization is to change the law… this was as good time as any to start the offensive,” Drag printed. No arrests were made.
If QLF was created to change the laws, Drag was a part of that mission. But it held a higher purpose as well: community. Drag recorded history as it happened, shared resources with a wide audience, and showcased the community. It led the drag and trans* community through triumphs and griefs, through celebrations and arrests, through pop culture moments and protests. Brewster, a gay drag activist who used he/him pronouns throughout his life, served as publisher and editor of Drag. The editorial note from that first issue reads, “Each day… I run into the attitude that drag… will never be legalized, here in the United States. Even the transvestite and drag queen, himself feels this way.”
Each issue of Drag had a front page displaying a cartoon of a conventionally attractive, slim woman wearing beautiful clothing, dazzling jewelry, her hair “done up,” and stylized makeup on her face. It is both a farce and a welcoming. The magazines are scattered with pictures of drag queens and trans women. But within those celebratory displays, there is also important, often devastating, news.
The trans* and drag communities felt they were being left behind by the gay rights movement and the magazine was a place where that feeling of neglect from the wider queer community was expressed. Drag got to uplift a community in the shadows, but it also had to grapple with the violence that came with it.
In its first publication came the news of the death of Laverne Turner, but also the news that drag had allegedly been legalized in Italy. These statements stand side by side, in company with each other. Turner had been dressed as a woman; the officers said Turner was shooting at them although witnesses alleged she was running away. Brewster, vacationing in Rome, noted that Italian men go wild over drag queens.
To be the record keeper of history is to gather the good and the bad and hold them in tandem. Each event is made more meaningful because of the other. Drag, published through the 1980s, was a calling, a community, a celebration; it was a declaration of existence.
Back in present day: on June 3, 2023, federal Judge Thomas Parker ruled that Tennessee’s drag ban was unconstitutional. “We’ve got a long way to go, baby,” reads the editorial from Drag’s first issue. That much was as true then as it is now. The editorial continues, underlined in black, “we have to start sometime and somewhere!”
Author’s note: The use of trans* is deliberate. I used information from Duke University Press, Transgender Studies Quarterly (see source list) which discusses the vocabulary, applicability of some transgender terminology. The asterisk (*), or star, is a symbol with multiple meanings and applications that can mark a bullet point in a list, highlight or draw attention to a particular word or phrase, indicate a footnote, or operate as a wildcard character in computing and telecommunications. In relation to transgender phenomena, the asterisk is used primarily in the latter sense, to open up transgender or trans to a greater range of meanings.
In the summer of 1969, police officers raided Stonewall, a bar in New York City. This event was not the first as raids on gay bars were routine. Stonewall was a culmination, a burning, a rebellion. The uprising lasted five nights and received significant media coverage. It ignited the gay rights movement.
An article from the New York Public Library. It discussed Stephen Vider, a historian, author and professor at Cornell who was interested in and did research on Lee Brewster. This source shows the discovery of color photographs of Brewster at a pride march.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed two laws in March 2023. The ban on gender-affirming care for minors and the ban on drag performances were blows to the LGBTQ+ community.
Another source that details Lee’s ban on gender-affirming care.
An online source that has pdfs of certain issues of Drag Magazine.
Within the Smithsonian Archives is the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Collection. This collection holds many objects pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community and its existence in American History. Included in the collection, under periodicals, are select issues of Drag Magazine.
Transgender Studies Quarterly is a journal that focuses on the publication of research and scholarship on the subject of transgender lives. In the article linked, it describes the use of the asterisk to denote an expansive definition of trans.
Describes Judge Thomas Parker’s ruling that Lee’s ban on drag shows was unconstitutional. One part of an ongoing battle, and a fight that will continue.