Thursday, October 10, 2013

Looking for Answers on 14th Street

By Paula Gaikowski

Source: Paula Gaikowski

Back before the term “transgender” was used, when men who wore dresses were called "faggot" and "pervert," I was a field engineer whose territory covered lower Manhattan.

Isolated, confused, and trans, I would sometimes stop and buy Drag magazine. I would read it hidden away in the back of a New York deli or sometimes take my lunch on a bench near Trinity Church in the shadow of the twin towers. Here in relative anonymity, I would enter into a world where there were others like me.

An advertisement in the back pages of Drag caught my eye and stuck in my mind for weeks, coaxing me to Lee’s Mardi Gras boutique a few blocks way.  

''Half of my clients are respectable-looking businessmen,'' Mr. Brewster said in an interview in The Village Voice, ''Very normal, but they know better than to present that side of themselves.''

I was one of those guys in a suit and tie, nodding and shyly going about my business! The neighborhood was in the meat-packing district and here we mean actual meat used in stores and restaurants --- no pun intended this time.

''He wanted people to have to find him. He tried to protect his customer base," said Antoinette Scarpinato, a former employee of Lee’s.

That’s for sure! The outside entrance was not obvious. A steel door with a 4-inch square window and a series of doorbells along the side. A visitor would have to read the list to find the scribbled name “Lee’s Mardi Gras,” then ring the bell.

As you waited there for a response, rugged swarthy men wearing blood-covered overalls lugged hand carts with sides of beef while loading trucks across the street.  All the while I remember thinking that they all knew why I was there, and what “I was,” and I just knew that they were laughing and mocking me silently.

The first time, I chickened out and ran before someone answered. Next time, a few months later, I waited and a voice crackled over the intercom and assured me that they would be downstairs soon. I remember the woman who came to greet me was very pretty, but knowing the context of the venue, I was sure she was transgender.

The steel door slammed shut behind us. It was dark and smelled dank and musty. It was that New York City smell and was ironically comforting because it reminded of my grandmother's basement in Greenpoint Brooklyn except this wasn’t Babcia leading me down the hallway. This exotic woman led me to an antiquated closet-sized elevator. The door closed, then it rattled and coughed its way upward.

The whole time I kept stealing glances at her. I was in awe of her as if she were a movie star.

The door opened to stylish boutique. The shop was nicely done up in an urban loft setting with brick walls and the merchandise neatly displayed. She was kind, helpful, and comforting and put me at ease.

This was the first transgender person I ever met and it was the first time I ever told someone that I was also transgender.

Together we picked out a wig. It was my first one, auburn in color and in a 1990’s big hair style. She coached me how to style it and gave me one bit of important advice that I still remember. “Whether you want to be a queen on stage or one of those pretty girls you see on Wall Street, it takes work. They all work very hard to look good.”

I would go back a few times a year, not because I needed to buy anything, but because of the acceptance I felt while being there. Lee’s was an oasis for me back then.

Over the next few years, I met Lee on several occasions at the store and also at his bookstore near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He understood the conundrum we married men in suits and ties struggled with and kindly offered support and guidance.

Today I’ve reached a point of self-acceptance and don’t really care what swarthy meat packers or store clerks think.

It’s astonishing to realize that a few short years ago transgender people needed to shop in clandestine boutiques and that support groups operated with cloak and dagger secrecy. Thanks to the support of Lee and others pioneers, today I go out and shop in mainstream stores and hold my head high. Now we are seeing cities and states passing transgender protection laws, the EOC has ruled that transgender people are protected, major corporations include transgender people in their diversity statements.

Among the corporations that expanded their medical insurance for transgender people are Apple, Chevron, General Mills, Dow Chemical, American Airlines, Kellogg, Sprint, Levi Strauss, Eli Lilly, Best Buy, Nordstrom, Volkswagen (US division), Whirlpool, Xerox, Raytheon, and Office Depot.

The struggle for transgender rights is far from over. I urge us all to remember that each and every one of us is a role model, advocate, and educator. You don’t need to be highly visible or carry a sign in the Pride parade. We must be thankful for people like Lee Brewster, but you can do something as simple as supporting a girlfriend with a kind e-mail or standing up against a bigoted transgender remark at work.

Slowly, but surely attitudes will change and people will be educated, then hopefully others will no longer need to feel the isolation, guilt, shame, and  struggle as many of us did searching for answers in Drag magazine or in a loft on 14th Street.



Source: Femulate Archives

Professional femulators of Le Carrousel in Paris, 1960.





Source: Elle

Wearing Kate Spade.


  1. Paula, Thank you so much for sharing a moment in time with us. It was so reminding of some joyious times of discovery in my own life. Though I only visited Lee Brewster's once, in the early 90's when I was teetering on the precipice between trembling in the closet and clicking my heels down Broadway. A dear friend I'd gone to visit and was living uptown had brought me there while on a weekend enfem. I remember the elevator, and meeting the transgender sales ladies. We did so much that weekend and it was a huge turning point in my life. It's hard to imagine being terrified to walk out the door, but I was and I was helped held and supported by all those girls who were pushing themselves and others to be the person you are! You are so right when you talk that we are all making it better, not only for us, but for our future trans sisters and brothers. By being out, being proud, being responsible and being examples of goodness and graciousness we are turning heads and changing minds one person at a time. I live far from the big city, and am often presenting as my self in a way that I will leave a good impression on those I encounter. I can only say, it seems to be working.

    Thanks again!

  2. You describe it so well. If I was in NY on business, I would always try to finish my meetings by midafternoon so I could go there. By 3 0'clock, the men working would be outside smoking or hosing down the sidewalks. I would be looking around furtively, sure, just like you, they knew where I was going and were silently thinking, "fag" or "queer." But what a relief to go there and know I wasn't the only guy in the world who loved wearing stockings, heels and a dress.

  3. Meant to add, you look lovely in that picture.

  4. Paula,
    Thank you for your wonder article. It brought back many memories. From the Carter Administration through the final years of the Clinton era I was a suit and tie worker on the east side of mid town Manhattan. From time to time I would find myself on the west side of 42nd street in the years before it was cleaned up. While I would sometimes find my way into some of the Times Square bookstores I never had the courage to visit Lee's when he had a place in that part of town.

    The fear of discovery of our T tendencies back in those days was intense. As for me I was struggling to even discover the "what and why" of my T side. I was an underdresser and I had several stashes of outfits in duffle bags that I would take on out of town travel.

    I understand the cloak and dagger scene. When I learned in the early 1990s that there was an organization called Tri-Ess I went and purchased a post office box to write them a letter asking for information about their organization. Over the better part of a year I cautiously checked them out and arranged for a secret screening meeting with a nice person named Charlene. We agreed to meet at a chain restaurant in midtown. I remember how nervous I was about that meeting. I also remember that I put on a new pair of my best pantyhose under my suit to prepare, as best I could, for that meeting. I convinced Charlene that I was sincere and safe and was given infomation on when and where the group would meet. Unfortunately, over the years, I only was able to attend a small number of meetings.

    While I never made it to Lee's I had a similar experience about 15 years ago driving back to NY from Boston. I stopped at the Glamour Boutique just off the Mass Pike about a half hour out from Boston. After summoning the courage to get out of my car and enter the store I was met by a beautiful blond TG. She was totally passable but I knew that she was TG. I was enthralled by her grace and demeanor. She wore a lovely black floral shift dress, mid-heeled boots, etc. She helped me with my shopping and made me feel normal and accepted and, for the first time in my life, I was able to try on some clothes before purchase. I still have the two dresses that I bought that day as well as a reddish page boy style wig. The waist cincher that I bought that day has been replaced by subsequent corsets that I have bought from them. Just the other day I used that first set of silicon breast forms that I bought from GB. I still remember the professional and pleasant treatment that this young lady provided to me that day. I was truly like a kid in a candy shop.

    We have come a long way and we are advancing the ball every time one of us gets out and about. I try to get out when I can. I realize that at my size I am rather easily read but I think that it is a good thing for us to meet and greet the civilian population so that they come to learn that we are safe, decent, productive and significant members of the society at large.

    You always look good and professionally put together and well groomed but your photo above is outstanding. Your makeup is perfect.

    Please keep "guest posting" on Stana's site. You have a lot to offer to our community and I thank Stana for giving you this forum.


  5. Wow, haven't thought about my Mardi Gras Boutique experiences in a while, but they are just like these. Lee ran a tiny ad in a Morris County NJ rag so as a 23 year old in 1978 I screwed up all my courage and made the trek. Heck, I was mortified to even get mail from him even though it was all in plain envelopes and I lived alone! I still have (and use) my first ever gaff I purchased from that trip. He had a painting of Jimmy Carter on the wall I found hilarious and can still vividly picture. I asked him if I was going to get beat up when I left the store, and he assured me that wouldn't happen. Made several more trips over the years, each a little bit easier than the last.

  6. I never had one of these experiences -- and feel that my journey would have been smoother if I had. But we shouldn't look back - just look forward! Thank you for a lovely, well written story - sharing an experience like this helps those of us who struggle along all alone. And Yes, the photo at the top of this article is gorgeous!

  7. I've never been to Mr. Lee's but it sounds like one of the "hot spots" to go in NYC! I can identify with "back before" because I was a boy who wore dresses and was called "faggot" and "pervert," a lot!

    You say things, nice meaningful things, that unfortunately will not be heard by this society very easily and that's too bad. But there is hope yet!

    BTW, you look wonderful, Paula, and I wish you nothing but the best! Send my thanks to Stana when you get the chance.