Lee Brewster



Lee Brewster (1943 – 2000).  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.

On moving to New York, he organized drag balls as fund raisers for the Mattachine Society. They campaigned successfully to de-criminalize cross-dressing in New York. Previously a bar or club could be closed and patrons arrested, simply because a single person, deemed to be cross-dressed, was present. The balls he organized continued until 1973 – the last one was attended by the real versions of Jacqueline Susann, Carol Channing and Shirley MacLaine.

He 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.

Mr. Brewster's 5,000-square-foot store in a loft at 400 West 14th St., Lee's Mardi Gras Boutique, sells size 30 dresses and size 15 studded platform shoes. Mr. Brewster sold racks of corsets, satin gloves and fishnet tights, but he was as interested in making a point as in making a profit. For years, he staged elaborate parties for cross-dressers. In the early '70s, he financed a successful legal challenge to overturn a New York City ordinance that allowed people to be removed from public places for being gay. Even in the years when many gays condemned public cross dressing as unnecessarily provocative, Mr. Brewster urged men who felt like wearing feather boas to wear them.

On Oct. 31, 1969, Mr. Brewster announced at one of his parties that he would start his clothing business, which he described as the first devoted to cross-dressers. Mr. Brewster's shop prospered before movies like "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "La Cage aux Folles" seemed to make drag almost mainstream, and opening it was a bold step in 1969.

At first Mr. Brewster filled only mail orders, but soon so many people were knocking on the door of his Hell's Kitchen apartment that he opened a store around the corner. Some customers, including Lady Bunny, the founder of Wigstock, the cross-dressing festival held every Labor Day in Greenwich Village -- as well as the costume designers for "Tootsie," "The Birdcage," and "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" -- do not mind being seen in the store. But others are touchier.

Mr. Brewster also founded a civil rights organization called the Queens Liberation Army, and in the 1970s and '80s published Drag Magazine. Mr. Brewster helped persuade the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs to remove the term "homosexuals" from the list of people who could be removed from any public place. Though it was seldom enforced, he felt the regulation gave police the legal authority to harass gays. Mr. Brewster is survived by his sister, June, and two brothers, James and Ted, all of whom live in the Baltimore area, and another brother, Sam, who lives in Dayton, Ohio.