In the Archives: Finding Lee Brewster in Color

By Julie Golia, Associate Director, Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books and Charles J. Liebman Curator of Manuscripts
June 13, 2023
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

One of the best things about working in the Manuscripts and Archives Division at The New York Public Library is learning new things about the Library's collections from our brilliant researchers. 

I was recently in touch with historian Stephen Vider, author of The Queerness of Home: Gender, Sexuality, and the Politics of Domesticity After World War II and curator of Gay Gotham, a 2016 exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. While researching Gay Gotham, Vider became interested in the story of performer, activist, and drag icon Lee Brewster. 

Born in Virginia in 1943, Brewster moved to Manhattan in the 1960s, joined the Mattachine Society of New York, and immersed himself in New York's rich drag ball scene. In 1969, several months before Stonewall, Brewster helped found the Queens Liberation Front, an activist group focused on trans rights. In October of that year, he opened Lee's Mardi Gras Boutique on West 14th Street, dressing generations of drag queens. He was also the publisher of Drag magazine, which had national reach. Throughout his life, Brewster identified with he/him pronouns. He died in 2000 of cancer.

Illustrated black and white cover of the first issue of Drag, featuring a drag queen in an evening gown and feather boa

Drag magazine, Volume 1, Issue 1 (1971)

A professor at Cornell, Vider focuses on Brewster's life and story in his courses on LGBTQ+ History in the United States in order to reveal an important  facet of LGBTQ+ activism. In an email to me, Vider observed, "I’ve been interested in showing how closely aligned trans activists like Sylvia Rivera and Lee Brewster were in the push for LGBTQ+ civil rights. Often historians have presented a sharp split between the revolutionary goals of groups like Gay Liberation Front and the more rights-focused agenda of groups like Gay Activists Alliance—but I knew that Rivera had participated in many rights-focused protests." He sought evidence that would demonstrate that these activist strains had more in common than many historians acknowledged.

As he researched the topic further, Vider noticed that few images of Brewster existed beyond some grainy black and white shots printed in Drag. But recently, some newly digitized photographs from the Digital Transgender Archive and from NYPL's Digital Collections prompted exciting discoveries. 

Vider was excited to find a new photo of Brewster with Sylvia Rivera at a March 14, 1971 protest in Albany while exploring the Digital Transgender Archive.  

Black and white photo of Lee Brewster and Sylvia Rivera, dressed in drag, at outdoor protest

Sylvia Rivera and Lee Brewster at Albany Protest, March 14th, 1971; ONE Archives at the USC Libraries, via Digital Transgender Archives.

The protest demanded that New York State repeal laws criminalizing sodomy, solicitation, and “cross-dressing." The photo that he found on the Digital Transgender Archive drew Vider back to NYPL's landmark photography collections—particularly the collection of photographer Diana Davies, which were digitized just a few years ago. 

"It was when I was looking back at Diana Davies’ photographs of the Albany protest," Vider recounted, "that I made the connection—seeing Brewster’s protest sign '2nd class citizens that is'—and realized NYPL held a rare color photo of Brewster."

Color photograph of Lee Brewster and Sylvia Rivera at outdoor protest in Albany

Diana Davies, Gay rights demonstration, Albany, New York, 1971; NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1582040.

Tracking activists, clothing, and signs and messages at one 1971 protest across different archives allowed Vider to identify one of the only color images of Brewster, right here in NYPL's collections. For Vider, the photograph illustrates the deep and underexamined connections between trans, gay, and lesbian liberation in the early 1970s—and how those movements advocated for legal reform along with cultural transformation.

The Manuscripts and Archives division welcomes all researchers to explore our collections. Learn more about our LGBTQ+ holdings with this research guide.  If you need help making an appointment, would like to speak to a librarian about your research, or have any questions about our collections, please reach out to the division via manuscripts@nypl.org

Special thanks to Stephen Vider for his generous contributions to this post.