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drag performance queerculture

Female Impersonation in Mid-century LA

We are living in an unprecedented era of queer acceptance in the United States. Because of this newfound acceptance there have been a lot more people speaking openly about their identities, and in turn challenging previously held beliefs on who is part of the greater LGBT+ community. A microcosm of this phenomenon has to do with drag; mainly in questions on who is allowed to participate in the community as well as who is allowed to self identify as a drag queen? One popular argument is that drag is derivative of “female impersonation”, a term used to define a usually cis gay male performer who crossdresses, usually for comedic effect. Therefore, there is no space for trans identities in the drag community. This sentiment is further echoed by RuPaul, host of RuPaul’s Drag Race and possibly the most publicly visible drag performer. When asked if an openly trans competitor would be allowed to compete on the show, RuPaul tweeted, “you can take performance enhancing drugs and still be an athlete, just not in the Olympics.” In this paper, I will attempt to lay a framework for how gender variant expression was treated in America, how that history manifested itself in the mid century L.A. “female impersonation” community, and how the effects of that history still inform the larger queer culture today.

To lay some groundwork, let’s discuss some highlights of where the culture was at in relation to drag/queer identities. I’m proposing that even though gender variant identities have always existed, the way they are allowed to publicly manifest is directly influenced by the society around them. Elements of cross dressing have been a part of live performance since the very inception of the medium. Every culture has some version of female impersonation, from Shakespeare’s actors in the Elizabethan era to Japanese Kabuki theatre artists. There is a long heritage of cross dressing actors in American culture, but the first time crossdressing on the stage was similar to the current drag culture we see now is during the Vaudeville era.

Vaudeville was a type of live performance that swept the nation during the late 1800s and early 1900s, right up until motion pictures became the dominant popular form of entertainment. It was around this time that the term “female impersonator” was first used when describing this type of performer.  There were a few female impersonators working at this time, but none so popular as Julian Eltinge. Julian was one of the first performers to embrace the term female impersonator and furthermore was one of the first performers to, pun intended, play the role straight. Most of Eltinge’s contemporaries used crossdressing on stage as a form of comedy; the joke was a man appearing in women’s clothing. This form of female impersonation has also been called “pantomime dame.” “As women began to assume the roles of female characters on stage, female impersonation developed a much more comical tone, satirising female characteristics…Dan Leno, a famous English music hall comedian and actor (was) well known for his dame roles in pantomimes during the latter half of the 19th century.” (Riley, 1)

Julian’s female impersonation was much different. A Variety review of Eltinge’s performance in 1909 states “(Eltinge) executes a dress while in feminine oriental dress. His ‘girl’ is an artistic study, from the slippers to the coiffure.” (Ullman, 573) Critics weren’t the only ones loving Eltinge’s work, his hold on audiences was legendary. “After one performance the crowd went wild, refusing to leave for intermission until he had returned to the stage and spoken to them directly.” (Ullman, 573). However, this intense fascination with Eltinge’s on stage persona led to fascination with his private life. As stated earlier, the public’s perception of female impersonation was that it was either used as a necessity, like in the time of  Shakespeare or it was done for comedic effect, much like the performances of many of Eltinge’s contemporaries. A man choosing to dress like a woman and give (potentially sexualised) performances fully passing as a woman was a direct attack on early 20th century gender roles.

Newspapers covering Eltinge’s personal life were highly invested in finding stereotypically male attributes that would make Etlinge’s offstage identity make more sense. Articles that were pro Eltinge reported that despite his onstage flamboyance, offstage he was still a “real man” (Ullman 575). There are countless articles discussing how Eltinge liked to get into fist fights over attacks of his masculinity, how under his corset was “an athlete’s body,” and most telling of all, how Eltinge was “…a good looking fellow on the street; well built and perhaps a little beyond the ordinary attractive man to an impressionable young woman” (Ullman, 585). In an attempt to dissuade conflict over whether or not his onstage gender expression was indicative of an offstage deviant (homosexual) identity, Eltinge and the media did everything in their power to assuage the straight audience that this was a man that was a typically, straight, masculine everyman. This sent a message that although this was an unequivocally queer gender performance, as long as the performer adheres to societal gender expectations off stage, this gender variance was permissible to the mainstream.

There are a lot of reasons as to why Eltinge could have made this decision. Of course, at this time in American History, being gay was still illegal. Crossdressing was also a punishable offence. The first anti crossdressing law was passed in 1848, and “…in the decades that followed more than 40 U.S cities created similar laws limiting the clothing that people were allowed to wear in public” (PBS).  Things had not gotten much better by the middle of the century. The 40s, 50s, and 60s were known for the “three articles laws” which were laws that required people to be wearing at least three articles of clothing that are easily identifiable as belonging to their assigned gender at birth.

The end of the Second World War brought with it a lot of societal change, but not a lot in regards to attitudes on homosexuality and variant gender expressions. Of course, there was the groundbreaking reveal of Christine Jorgensen’s transgender identity. Jorgensen was one of the first American’s (an ex-GI, no less) who had undergone what we would today call gender confirming procedures.While never self identifying as a female impersonator, Christine did have a successful cabaret career that featured a lot of the same performance staples of many female impersonators.

However, progress does not happen all at once. In 1948 Los Angeles, a twenty year old African American woman named Ruth Foster killed her older live-in girlfriend in a fit of passion. Despite the horror of the crime, much of the media attention on Ruth’s case had to do with her sexuality. Ruth’s exploits in the papers discussed her having“startled a squad of sophisticated policemen” with her frank discussions of her relationship with the murdered woman, or her attorney coming out and saying that Foster’s “alleged insanity grew out of ‘illicit love’” (Leonard, 545). The case’s scandalous nature captured the public’s attention, and it’s influence most likely had an effect on the LA queer community. You could stab someone to death but the only thing the public will be talking about at the end of the day is your queer identity.

So obviously, there was a lot of cultural discourse over queer identities both on stage and off. This manifested itself in how queer people would present themselves, especially to an audience. The Flamingo Club operated from 1941 to 195 in Los Angeles and featured a revolving cast of female impersonators. Female impersonation had hit it’s “golden years” during this era and was associated with high glamour, a trend arguably started by Julian Eltinge. Most of the stories of the performers and their acts have been lost to the sands of time, but thankfully one pamphlet from 1947 still exists online. Each page features stunning, full body glamour shots of each of the performers, accompanied by a short blurb about their history in “the business.” There are no forms of “drag” represented in this pamphlet that falls out of the boundaries of clear, binary gender representations of what a “female impersonator” should dress like. Although a little more theatrical, the costumes still fall into what was socially accepted for a respectable woman of the time.

While this might seem like a bold choice for a club in this era, there are several instances throughout the pamphlet that show the performers are trying to assure any stray heterosexual audience members are comforted in the knowledge that these deviant gender expressions are nothing more than an on stage farce. A joke. For the starters, for every large glossy glamour shot of the performers in drag, there is an accompanying headshot, either on the next page or at the end of the pamphlet, of the performers in their “street garb.” The “street garb” has the performers presenting as clean cut, cis-gender mid century men. Clearly, Eltinge’s influence was felt in more ways than one.

The language used in the blurbs about the performers is further indication of queer people attempting to “tone it down” for a potential heterosexual audience. For starters, all of the performers are referred to as “he” throughout the entirety of the pamphlet. Another interesting note is that many of the performers descriptions in the pamphlet refer to the impersonators, seemingly against all odds, magically falling into this chosen profession. For example, half of Harvey Lee’s description in the pamphlet is dedicated to his former career as a secretary in the United States Treasury, having only decided to go into drag when he was “asked to appear at the first of the President’s Birthday Balls in Washington DC” (Heritage). Who could be a better drag mother than the President of the United States? Those Oval Office meetings must have been sickening.

On the page featuring performer Francis Blair, the description states that although Francis is known for performing some “risqué songs” he is also “a comedian of note”. Johnny Magnum’s blurb talks about how he only got his start into female impersonation when, at a party, Mae West was so taken aback by his presence that she offered him a job in one of her shows. Chris Bailey, described as “holding a variety of unimportant jobs” didn’t get his start in female impersonation until patriotically performing for the troops during World War II (Heritage).

Francis Stillman, yet another of Club Flamingo’s performers, has the most interesting description. “First started in the business at the age of 9, did little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin….Went into Vaudeville for years and when Vaudeville died went into Burlesque doing strip teases and pulling wig at the finish of act and during prohibitions went into clubs…now doing high and low comedy and finding it more fun to make people laugh” (Heritage).

There’s a lot to unpack here. First off, again, we see that the performer wasn’t choosing to partake in female impersonation out of interest. At first, Francis is thrust onto the stage at the age of nine and female impersonation seemingly stuck ever since. The strip tease part is particularly interesting. This is the most overtly sexual description of the Flamingo Club performers, but it is underscored with the remark about the “wig removal.” Almost as if to assure the audience that  no sexualities were questioned in that vaudeville audience, it’s important for the reader to know that at the end of the performance the farce is revealed. Most telling of all is how any allusions to queer sexuality is undercut by the last sentence saying that Francis is now finding it more fun to make people laugh.

Something to note is that there is not a single person of color featured in the cast lineup. While there is the obvious conclusion that this was reflective of America’s discriminatory segregation laws which were still in effect at the time, there still could be another reason. Female Impersonators at this time were burdened with the seemingly impossible task  of deconstructing gender roles while also still being approachable to a mainstream, heterosexual, white audience. This is clearly seen throughout the Club Flamingo pamphlet, through their tireless effort to pander to a non queer audience. Perhaps the club owners felt that including a person of color in the cast line up would be too scandalous for a mid century audience on top of the already taboo concept of female impersonation.

Regardless, it had to be a purposeful choice  and it remains a sad example of marginalised people punching down in an attempt to make a clear boundary around their community in hopes of some mainstream acceptance. Try as they might to pander to a heterosexual audience, Club Flamingo was still shut down in 1951. According to a Los Angeles Times article, Club Flamingo was not given a renewed entertainment license because the sheriff reported “the club is a gathering place for undesirables” (Heritage).

Despite the attempts from queer people within their communities to gate keep in a way to appease the mainstream, first hand accounts of the queer scene in Los Angeles at this time report that there were people who we would understand today as “transgender.” The book Gay L.A: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians touches on how  gay men and people who lived full time as women (but were assigned male at birth) all used the umbrella term “gay” to self identify.  “…Tony Albanese, who had come to L.A hoping to live as a woman, frequented downtown gay bars on main street such as Harold’s, the Waldorf, and the 1-2-3, where he encountered some males in garish drag, others indistinguishable from real women, all resembling, as he ambivalently characterised them ‘creatures of another world’ with their ‘cacophony of psychedelic patter, falsetto laughter, screeching, and cackling” (Faderman, 1348).

So even if the people described in the paragraph above all self identified as “gay” there was at the very least a subculture of people who passed as women. Not that passing is necessarily indicative of a transgender identity, but it’s safe to assume that some of those passing people underwent hormone treatment or surgical enhancements. April Ashley, an internationally recognised female impersonator  who later went on to mainstream modelling and transgender activisim, was working around the same time as the performers found at Club Flamingo and described in Gay L.A. In one excerpt from her autobiography, April Ashley’s Odyssey, Ashley describes taking estrogen shots with two of her female impersonator peers. “ Bambi took me along to Dr Four once a week for expensive shots of the female hormone oestrogen…. Oestrogen must affect people differently because my breasts never amounted to much whereas Ruby, another of the female impersonators, had overwhelming dugs, pendulous in character. She’d take off her brassière and wail, ‘My God, the floor’s cold!’  Coccinelle’s were quite a bagful too, the consistency of indiarubber because she’d had them pumped up with silicone” (Ashley, 1). Humor aside, this step to feminize the appearance taken by these professional female impersonators, despite their job title, is clear evidence that privately some of these performers were transitioning.

Queer identities are, in a word, complex. We’re coming to a greater societal understanding that people who fall outside of the male/female gender binary exist in contemporary culture, but we still turn a blind eye to instances of these identities manifesting anywhere in our past. As we reassess events in our history that deserve a modern day reexamination, I think it’s important to also turn that critical eye on the role queer and trans people have played in shaping said history. Despite what some of the contemporary fans of drag may be led to believe, people who we would understand today as being transgender have always been, and were instrumental to, the foundations of the drag community as we know it. However, there have been literal laws banning homosexuality and gender variant expression. Therefore, people were either forced to hide this facet of their identity from the greater public or they simply did not have the language with which to express this facet of their personhood.

Throughout the writing of this essay, it became abundantly clear to me that the gender politics at the start of the last decade still indirectly inform how queer people understand their identities today. The fascination of female passing Julian Eltidge’s off stage life as a male affected how a group of Los Angeles female impersonators presented their identities to their audiences. Even though first hand accounts report trans people being involved in the community, to the public the LA female impersonation community was a space for cis men to dress as cis women. I don’t think it’s much of a reach to say this dynamic has played out today in RuPaul’s Drag Race. The most recent season to air featured the first out transgender contestant, Gottmik, but this contestant was still someone who lives their life as a gay male when they are not performing on stage. Throughout the series run, there have been several contestants (Carmen Carrera, Jiggly Caliente, Gia Gunn, Sonique Summers, etc) who were either not disclosing their transgender identity or transitioned right after the show. Which begs the question, do the cutaways to the contestants presenting as male not function in the same way as Club Flamingo’s male headshots? Imagine if Carmen Carrera’s documented career outside of Drag Race becomes unavailable. Much like the people discussed in this essay, in another century, will the lived experiences of these trans performers too be lost to time?

Works Cited

Ashley, April. April Ashley’s Odyssey. Arrow Books, 1983.

“Club Flamingo.” Queer Music Heritage, www.queermusicheritage.com/fem-flamingo.html.

Faderman, Lillian, and Stuart Timmons. Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. University of California Press, 2009.

Leonard, Kevin A. “Containing ‘Perversion:” African Americans and Same Sex-Desire in Cold War Los Angeles.” Journal of the History of Sexuality , vol. 20, no. 3, Sept. 2011.

PBS. “Arresting Dress: A Timeline of Anti-Cross-Dressing Laws in the United States.” 31 May 2015.

Riley, Kristen. “From Female Impersonation to Drag.” Wellcome Collection, 2019.

Ullman, Sharon. “‘The Twentieth Century Way’: Female Impersonation and Sexual Practice In Turn-Of-The-Century America.” Journal of the History of Sexuality , vol. 5, no. 4, Apr. 1995.