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Lee Brewster Dies at 57
-- Pioneering Transvestite Activist

Defended the Rights of Crossdressers—Straight & Gay

Provided Drag Wardrobes for Hollywood's Filmmakers

By Jack Nichols

New York City, New York—Lee Greer Brewster, 57, one of America's first pioneering transvestite activists, died here Friday after a battle with cancer. He was a gentle, soft-spoken and kindly man who worked indefatigably to better conditions for crossdressers. He was also an able entrepreneur whose Greenwich Village clothing boutique, Lee's Mardi Gras, catered for over 30 years to those men throughout the world, whether straight or gay, who enjoyed dressing as women. lbrewster.jpg - 7.26 K
Lee Brewster

Brewster was born in Honacker, Virginia., on April 27, 1943. His youth had been spent in West Virginia's coal mining region. He worked in fingerprinting for the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the early 1960s but was fired when it was suspected that he was gay.

Upon moving to Manhattan, Brewster became an active member of the New York Mattachine Society, Inc. and helped organize popular drag balls as fund raisers for the organization. He noted, however, that the conservative membership of that organization was loathe to use the funds he'd collected for the welfare of drag queens and transvestites. He then founded Queens.

America's first gay weekly newspaper, GAY, chronicled the founding of Queens (later to be known as the Queens Liberation Front). The purpose of the organization, according to the paper, was "to legalize the right to dress in the attire of the opposite sex in public without fear of arrest or police harassment." Brewster preferred to be called "Mr." rather than adopting a feminized name. He first began providing services to the Transvestite/Drag Community in 1969. He announced the intended formation of his organization at his first drag ball during February of that year, choosing Halloween, 1969, as its formal date of founding.

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Lee's Mardi Gras was the epicenter of what he called "the crossdressing lifestyle." Located at 400 West 14th Street, his customers entered the boutique on the third floor. Brewster believed that having a street-level entry way would have failed to protect the privacy of his clients, many of whom were conservative businessmen.

His unusual boutique boasted 5,000 square feet of crossdressing merchandise. Customers told him it was as large as all other transvestite sales stores combined. "We certainly do try to have something for everyone!" he announced in ads, "Indeed, we are fond of saying that we stock items which range from "Woolworth's quality and prices to those of Saks Fifth Avenue to suit your style and budget".

"Lee's will turn you into the girl you've always wanted to be," according to a 1999 mention in New York magazine.

But providing fashionable clothing was only part of what Lee Brewster provided his customers. His bookstore contained several thousand titles, possibly the most comprehensive inventory on transvestite lifestyles in the world.

He boasted happily: "We are so well known for our diversified titles, we even received a telephone call from Abu Dhabi on the Arabian peninsula from a potential book buyer, checking on our inventory! In the spirit of professionalism, we called back to confirm... collect of course!"

"We fought for our rights as people," said Lee. "Under our civil rights component, the Queens Liberation Front became the first transvestite organization to parade and protest in New York City. We legalized the wearing of "drag" in New York City bars and cabarets. No longer could a club be closed, or patrons arrested just because there was a crossdresser present.

lbrewster2.jpg - 43.64 K Brewster, looking back on his life, said: "It has been an exciting, educational, and sometimes exasperating, 30+ years in this business. We've been there from the start, servicing the quiet, lonely crossdresser in Middle America, to the Broadway, Television and Movie production staffs of Tootsie, Priscilla, La Cage and everyone's talk show! The opening sequence in To Wong Foo looks like a commercial for the Mardi Gras Boutique, so many of the items changing the stars into ladies having been purchased here. Nathan Lane, star of the crossdressing hit, The Birdcage filmed the promo for the movie at our store!" There will be many who will miss Lee Brewster, say his friends. "For want of a better phrase," Ms. Antoinette Scapinato, an employee said, "he was really the mother to us all."

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