September 27, 2020 The Newspaper Serving LGBT Los Angeles

GAY LA – When Drag Was All the Rage (But Queerness Wasn’t)

Today, it’s not hard to find drag culture wherever you are. From VH1, to Netflix, to Twitter, the language of drag has become culturally omnipresent since RuPaul’s “Drag Race” turned America’s gayest pastime into a contact sport.

But what about everything that went down before Ru hopped on the ballroom scene? How did drag artists survive and thrive in a world that didn’t quite understand them?

As it turns out, rather swimmingly. Back in the 1920s and ‘30s in Los Angeles, drag artists weren’t just big. They were fairly mainstream. Despite anti-crossdressing laws in Los Angeles, drag performers like Julian Eltinge, Gene Malin and Rae Bourbon were some of the hottest nightlife attractions on the scene. Yet, the repressive laws that threatened to throw any man or woman wearing more than two pieces of “gender-inappropriate” clothing were still prevalent.

So how did they do it? 

Drag artist Ray (later Rae) Bourbon.

Mainly by being sensational onstage. Gene Malin, a Broadway chorus boy who made a name for himself in New York as a drag performer, was such a vibrant entertainer that he had no trouble drawing crowds. At one point during a performance in New York, Malin went into the audience and punched a too-drunk audience member, causing a then-young Ed Sullivan to proclaim: 

“Jean Malin belted a heckler last night at one of the local clubs. All that twitters isn’t pansy.” 

Malin’s large, intimidating appearance was part of the joke. Described by a biographer as “a six-foot-tall, 200-pound bruiser who also had an attitude and a lisp,” Malin performed songs with titles like “I’d Rather Be Spanish Than Mannish.” He also paved the way for L.A. drag artists like Rae Bourbon and Bruz Fletcher, a regular performer at the L.A. queer night spot Club Bali in the 1930s. Drag culture, in the ‘20s and ‘30s, was about being shocking. It was about seeing how much you could get away with. While Malin only made a few film appearances, they were enough to send him packing for the West Coast. After making a name for himself there, he continued to perform in small gay clubs and bars all over Hollywood.

Drag performer Gene Malin in the 1933 film “Double Harness.”

It was in Venice where Malin met his tragic end. Leaving the old gay bar and celebrity hot spot “Ship Cafe” in 1933, Malin, along with his partner and the lesbian actress Patsy Kelly, got into his car and accidentally reverse-gear plummeted into the pier. 

Other crossdressers didn’t fare much better. Bruz Fletcher took his own like in 1941. Rae Bourbon died in prison after being accused of murdering a kennel owner in Texas. Before that, she’d been arrested several times for “impersonating a woman.”

Drag has always been a hopeful art form. At heart, it’s a vision of the future. A future in which people are more forgiving, more understanding, and way more fun. People like Gene Malin might not have known it, but they were creating a movement that continues to shape the world today.  

Related Posts

“The Mismatch Game” Hosted By Dennis Hensley Is Going To Zoom

September 23, 2020

September 23, 2020

With COVID restrictions affecting several businesses and theater spaces throughout the Los Angeles area many have had to make adjustments. ...

Helen Albert Farmers’ Market To Reopen

September 20, 2020

September 20, 2020

The City of West Hollywood will reopen the Helen Albert Certified Farmers’ Market at Plummer Park from 9 a.m. to...

WeHo Cooling Center At Plummer Park

September 17, 2020

September 17, 2020

With temperatures expected to rise to more than 90 degrees over the next week, the City of West Hollywood will...

Golden Girls Puppet Parody

September 17, 2020

September 17, 2020

Jonathan Rockefeller, acclaimed American/Australian producer, director, and writer, has announced that 16 new, original episodes of That Golden Girl Show!...

Los Angeles CEO Jeffrey Previte Caught Beating Dog

September 12, 2020

September 12, 2020

Jeffrey Previte, the CEO of EBI Consulting an environmental consulting firm in Los Angeles, was captured on camera at the...

Rage Nightclub Permanently Closing

September 10, 2020

September 10, 2020

After 37 years Rage nightclub located at the northwest corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and San Vicente in West Hollywood...

OUTFEST Announces “Taiwan Program”

September 6, 2020

September 6, 2020

The 2020 Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, Taiwan (R.O.C) and Taiwan Academy...

LGBTQ Center Long Beach Fires Executive Director Porter Gilberg

September 6, 2020

September 6, 2020

The Board of Directors of the LGBTQ Center Long Beach announced that it will not renew the employment contract of...

Two Men Charged After Three Trans Women Are Attacked In Hollywood

September 2, 2020

September 2, 2020

Two men have been charged with robbery against three transgender women on the evening of Aug. 17 in Hollywood. Carlton...

AIDS Walk Los Angeles 2020

August 27, 2020

August 27, 2020

AIDS Walk Los Angeles (AWLA) is the world’s first walk to fight HIV and AIDS. 35 years ago, a group...

Date Night In Times Of COVID

August 23, 2020

August 23, 2020

As things to do in times of COVID-19 dwindle down to staying in your home and watching a specific streaming...

Queer Owned Cuties Coffee Shop Closes

August 23, 2020

August 23, 2020

Cuties, Los Angeles’ only queer focused coffee shop, has closed permanently due to the stresses of COVID-19.  The East Hollywood...

WeHo Bar Flaming Saddles Closes Permanently

August 20, 2020

August 20, 2020

Flaming Saddles, the West Hollywood gay country western bar, has closed permanently.  Owners Jacqui Squatriglia and Chris Barnes, who also...

Three Trans Women Attacked in Hollywood

August 20, 2020

August 20, 2020

On Sunday August 16th, 2020, Instagram influencer Eden the Doll and her friends Joslyn Flawless and Jaslene White Rose were...

Unicorn Pizza in Santa Monica

August 9, 2020

August 9, 2020

DagWoods’, a popular pizza spot in Santa Monica, is home to the “Magical AF” pizza that’s been featured on shows...