Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

By Stephanie Julianna

I had been doing my family's genealogy way before it was fashionable and easier with Ancestry and computer software help. However, the introduction of science and DNA has opened up my searching to a world of amazing possibilities. 

This last June, I saw a very promising match and after a few emails, I connected with a second cousin in Vilnius, Lithuania. Her grandfather and my Polish grandmother were brother and sister. For reasons unimportant to this narrative, the American branch of the family had lost touch with the European branch with the passing of the older generation. 

The emails continued as my cousin and I started to share what we have. Then she floored me with pictures that had been sent to family in the “Old Country” by my grandmother and her four younger sisters. They were mostly professional portraits obviously meant to show the family they left behind that they were doing well in America. None of these pictures had survived in the USA, but had been lovingly preserved and put in an album in Vilnius and now were returning to America via email.  

Stephanie’s Aunts and Grandmother, circa 1930
One picture struck me. Taken about 85 years ago, it showed the five sisters much younger than my earliest memories of them. They are pictured here and were a cast of characters.  Left to right, there are Frances, who could outdrink any sailor and drive home sober; Helen, who had total recall memory before anyone knew it even existed, Rachela (my grandma), who made babka and perogies that still make my mouth water just thinking about them; Marianna, who actually taught two rescued US Army German Shepherds how to speak. Really, I heard them with my own ears, and lastly, the youngest, Emilia, whose husband was murdered by the Nazis and daughter lived in the woods for the duration of the conflict until being found in a displaced persons camp after the war.

These women are just a handful of all the people carrying my DNA that make Stephanie the person she is today. These women and many others in my family taught me, by example, what unconditional love is. And I can also say that about many of the women on my Irish side as well as my own sisters. They all came with my first birth in 1949.

Lee Brewster
My second birth eventually happened in 1979 when I wandered into Lee Brewster's Mardi Gras Boutique on 10th Avenue near 42nd Street in NYC. I had seen ads for the shop in some of the Drag magazines I was buying and took the leap while in The City on business.  

It was a climb up a long staircase to a magical place. The actual Lee Brewster (1943-2000) greeted me at the door and my life was changed forever. Lee had a lithe, feminine voice with a wonderful Southern drawl, but I did not comment on his sweet voice. Good thing I never did. Lee was an old school drag queen and always wanted to be called ‘sir’ or ‘mister.’  

I remember a few years later sitting in his office for a chat, when the phone rang. He answered and eventually slammed the phone on the receiver. “Can you imagine that! He kept calling me Ma’am.” I wasn't going to tell him he sounded like a woman. So I replied as only a friend would, “The nerve!” LOL

But what really happened that first visit was transformative (pun intended). Lee not only brought Stephanie (I was actually Debbie back then) into the world a few months later, but he also introduced me to his friends who welcomed me with open arms. Like my grand aunts, they were a cast of characters and I loved every minute with them. They were just girls like me who knew who they were, but took different paths on their roads to being themselves. They helped me become the woman I am today when I can be the total person that makes up the whole.

Lee Brewster (center) marching in the NYC Gay Pride Parade

Bebe Scarpi (just right of the banner) in the NYC Gay Pride Parade.
Well-known trans activist Sylvia Rivera holds up the banner on the left.

Drag queens get a bad rap as being narcissistic and self-centered, always trying to bring attention to themselves. Even I fell for that narrative for a while. So you can imagine my surprise when years later, trolling the Internet, I finally realized who I was rubbing shoulders with. Lee was a central figure in the Stonewall riots and the following movement. He was a founding father of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in NYC and his famous Mardi Gras balls helped fund the early groups that fought for our rights as crossdressers. Some gay historians say he funded the legal fees out of his own pocket to strike down the laws in NYC that criminalized crossdressing.

Bebe Scarpi and Stephanie
Another friend, Bebe Scarpi (Scarpinato) (1951-2019) was the first director of the GLF as was another lovely friend, Vicky West (1935-2005), who was another co-founder of GLF and a noted graphic artist whose artwork graced most of the early covers of Lee's Drag magazine. When she entered the room, heads did turn. Truly a class act and drop-dead beautiful. She was also a mother to us younger ones. And if I did not research them, I never would have known. They just did what they thought they had to do and went on with their lives.

Bebe also worked in the boutique, but was actually a teacher and became the first transgender principal in America in later years. If that is not enough, in her younger years as a teacher, she was also a stripper at night. It was like there was more than one person in that body and she was electric.  

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the achievements that makes up this trio. I had an angel on my shoulder the day I entered their world. Everyone here owes them a debt of gratitude because they truly fought for us and put it all on the line, physically, emotionally and even monetarily.  

Look around yourself. Those people around you helping you with all this dressing stuff could be the next generation of movers and shakers. Maybe even that lady in the mirror is one. Stana definitely is and has made her mark and continues to help us through the labyrinth that is our lives. 

To all the wonderful ladies in my life, past and present, genetically linked or not, thank you for helping me be me.




Source: Venus
Wearing Venus




Vicky West
Vicky West, Drag magazine Art Editor

8 comments:

  1. This posting got me to wondering if Frock magazine is still around? I know that you published an article in the last issue that i saw. So after hearing you talk about the fabulous gurls/queens of the past it got me to wondering about the magazine.

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    1. Michelle, I have not written for Frock but love that magazine. As far as I know it is still out there but I have not looked for it for a few months.

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    2. Frock magazine’s last issue was in mid-2017.

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    3. I had to look it up and yes, Michelle, my article appeared in that final issue of Frock, #42.

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  2. I wrote an article about visiting Lee's Mardi Gra boutique,

    http://www.femulate.org/2013/10/looking-for-answers-on-14th-street.html


    Because of this article I have been contacted by a woman at UWV who is researching Lee's life. He was from West Virginia. Please email me for info You would be a VERY valuable part of her research. paul.gaikowski@commscope.com

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  3. Dear Paula, I don't know know how much that I can add other than personal anecdotes but I will gladly add my thoughts about this amazing person. Check your emails.
    Love, Steph

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  4. If I remember correctly, Lee had a book store in midtown and the clothing store was in lower Manhattan (both on the Westside). At least that what I remember-or misremember-from 1989. So many years ago, but I recall my trepidation and the kindness shown to me during that time.
    Best-Susan

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    1. Dear Susan, The building on 10th near 42nd had been slated to be torn down for years and somehow got reprieves year after year. But eventually time ran out and Lee had to move. That is when he got the place on 14th in the old meat market district. I have racked my brain trying to remember the year but I want to think it was around the early to mid 80's. If the two locations were open at the same time it might have been during the move. Do you remember the elevator entrance off the street to get to the new shop? I always teased Lee that it was like taking the elevator in a hilarious scene in The Producers.

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