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.
Professional femulators of Le Carrousel in Paris, 1960.
Wearing Kate Spade.