Pioneers of South Florida Queer History: Female Impersonators | Opinion

Photo courtesy of Fred Fejes.
Photo courtesy of Fred Fejes.

The current political drama over drag shows is just another chapter in a long playing story of heterosexuals getting upset when queer people become too visible. Female impersonation has a long and distinguished history, from ancient Greek theater to the 16th and 17th century English stage to Japan’s Kabuki tradition.

In America female impersonators emerged in the 19th century minstrel shows and early 20th century vaudeville. However with the decline of vaudeville in the 1920s, female impersonator migrated first to speakeasies, and then in the 1930s to clubs and bars where they provided entertainment for post-prohibition customers. Also at this time, the first signs of a same sex/queer presence was also becoming visible in many urban areas and there was a close connection between female impersonators and the emergence of an LGBTQ people. Bars and clubs featuring female impersonators provided a queer space where the lines and categories of gender and sexuality were relaxed and blurred. Female impersonators provided the first places were many proto-homosexuals could come and meet others like themselves.

Like many major cities, Miami starting in the 1930s had its female impersonator clubs featuring many of the big names like Jean Malin and John Magnum from New York. In 1933 at the Torch Club in Miami, the performers would “come to your table and sing you a nice song or a naughty one according to your taste…if your moral prejudices are not too strict, you’ll get many a laugh out of it.”

In advertising the clubs and the performers it was very common to call them “gay” or describe how “gayiety” was a prominent part of the place. Although to the typical straight customer, “gay” meant risqué and sophisticated entertainment, to “those in the know” it was a place where they could feel comfortable. Among the popular clubs and bars featuring female impersonators throughout the 1930 to 1950s were “Club Ha Ha” in

Hollywood, The Torch Club, Leon and Eddie’s, the Circus Bar, Club Echo, La Paloma, the Singing Bar and Tony Pastor’s A particularly famous show was the Jewel Box Revue which started in the 1930s in the upper Midwest and the East Coast. It opened in Miami Bach in its own venue in 1945 and was a crowded every weekend. For the next five years it was a prominent spot for nighttime entertainment.

At first the reaction was welcoming. Female impersonators often appeared for a limited run in many of the major hotels and restaurants. They were often the stars at socials and fundraisers. They even appeared at firemen’s balls, police, church and PTA benefits. One reporter noted how you could never know the performer was a man except “When her (!) dress flew up on a whirling routine she displayed her knobby knees which betrayed her.”

However starting in the late 1930s, some people began to raise objections about the gender-bending entertainment. Neighboring residents near the club La Paloma in Hialeah complained about the “men who looked like women. ” Because the police were slow to respond, the local Ku Klux Klan acted, raiding and temporarily closing down the club.

In another instance, starting in the 1940, Robert Gore, the editor of the Fort Lauderdale News, ran front page editorials about Club Ha Ha in Hollywood, the place where “lip-sticked and rouge-smeared perverts… parade their depravity before decent men and women” For the next five years he continued his editorializing about the club. Finally he convinced a sheriff’s office juvenile officer to get an injunction to close the club down, claiming that the club had “a vile and obscene show using as their entertainers a cast of males disguised as females” and that the public gained the impression that the performers, were homosexuals, resulting in an audience “seeking thrills.” He claimed that the club has

gained the reputation with the county’s young people as being a place of “sexual perversion” and thus contributing to juvenile delinquency. The owner of the club appealed, going all the way to the Florida Supreme Court but he lost the case. The club was closed but it moved to Miami. For the next four years it played to standing room only crowds at a popular bar Leon and Eddie’s, the entertainment was advertised as “gay, gay gay.”

By the late 1940s it was becoming obvious that the major audience for the shows were the “perverts” and “deviates” who were then becoming a more and more visible part of Miami life. Police began to harass the “femmic clubs” or as those featuring female impersonators were called. One club was raided and the manager arrested for “packing in an estimated 300 people in a place licensed for 86.” The police could not arrest the queer customers; there was no law against being a homosexual. Finally in the summer of 1952 the Miami News and the Miami Herald began a front page campaign against “femmics,” calling for city laws against female impersonation. Within a month both Miami and Miami Beach passed laws. Cities in Broward followed and soon all the female impersonator shows were shut down. Jackie May, a nationally famous female impersonator working in Miami, sued to have the law struck down but lost. Christine Jorgensen, America’s first transsexual who worked as a singer, was allowed to perform in Miami only after the police saw that her passport identified her as “female.”

In the aftermath many of the “pervert” bars continued operating, but without the entertainment. But Miami’s queer community would continue to grow. In 1954 the city would conduct a major campaign against the bars, trying to shut them down. However within a few months they were all open again. The Jewel Box Revue left Miami, and for the next twenty years toured the country, playing at theaters, bars and special events. In the 1960s the “anti-femmic” laws were ruled unconstitutional and female

impersonators, some now identified as “drag queens,” would return to the growing number of queer bars and clubs that were appearing throughout South Florida and the nation.


CONTACT FRED FEJES This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Phone: 954-514-7095
Hours: Monday - Friday 9AM - 2PM


2520 N. Dixie Highway,
Wilton Manors, FL 33305



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