Skip to Content
Eternal City

How NYC’s Cabaret Laws Tried to Crack Down on Drag

The passage of NYC's cabaret laws in the late 1920s and the creation of the New York State Liquor Authority pushed drag and queer culture back to the fringes of society—but the backlash couldn't stop drag from existing.

8:23 AM EDT on September 12, 2023

The cover of Elyssa Goodman's book "Glitter and Concrete."

(Courtesy of HarperCollins)

The following is an excerpt from Elyssa Goodman's "Glitter and Concrete: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City," on sale Tuesday, September 12. In it, Goodman explores the dynamic role of drag in queer liberation and life in New York City. In this excerpt, she writes how the passage of NYC's cabaret laws in the late 1920s and the creation of the New York State Liquor Authority pushed drag and queer culture, which had been experiencing a brief period of more mainstream visibility, back to the fringes of society—but the backlash couldn't stop drag from existing.

Jackie Maye's coiffed brows perched in perfect arches accented by long lashes and chiseled cheekbones. With a pinched nose and curled lips, his face would become synonymous with drag through the length of his nationally renowned, forty-year career.

Born John Rushmore Crandall and raised in New York, the young Maye sang in the boys' choir at the Metropolitan Opera, only to be kicked out when his voice changed. Trying to adapt, Maye auditioned for male roles to no avail until, at a party one night, a guest asked him to hit the soprano notes of his youth, which he did with aplomb. A nightclub owner attending the party offered Maye a gig as a female impersonator. The money was good enough that Maye didn't mind squeezing his broad shoulders into elegant, sparkling evening gowns and cocktail dresses, his own hair under a brunette wig.

When Maye made his debut at Club Calais in 1930 during the height of the Pansy Craze, heads immediately began to turn. "The main novelty here," the New York Daily News wrote, "is a lad named Jackie Maye, who is dressed in girl's clothing and looks better than many a lass." At Club Calais, Maye became known for singing, "I Must Have That Man," later popularized by Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. But, like other female impersonators in the 1930s, his career took a turn with the passing of New York's "cabaret laws," which required licensing for "any room, place, or space in the city in which any musical entertainment, singing, dancing, or other similar amusement is permitted in connection with the restaurant business or the business of directly or indirectly selling the public food or drink."

The cabaret laws were instituted on January 1, 1927. They initially applied to the venues themselves, but by 1940, performers were required to obtain a cabaret license, for which they were fingerprinted and photographed. The laws were considered deeply racist, particularly for the way they targeted Harlem jazz clubs. Artists couldn't get a cabaret card if they had been convicted of prior criminal activity. Lenny Bruce, Thelonious Monk, and Billie Holiday would all have their cards revoked or denied. The general idea was that anyone who performed in a cabaret was from "an odd class of people," and their behavior needed to be overseen, according to historian Joe E. Jeffreys.

Merely existing in public as a queer person, as a queer man especially, during this time could result in arrest for "degeneracy" or "homosexual solicitation." Such a situation was made even worse by the prospect of entrapment, in which plainclothes police officers loitered in cruising areas, arresting anyone who tried to woo them. Over 50,000 men would be arrested for cruising between 1923 and 1966.

The cabaret card bureau also denied anyone who was openly gay from receiving a card. Queer people who hoped to perform in drag at nightclubs had to repress their own existence, for fear of not just being arrested, but being outed and losing their livelihood. Often "the boys" who ran the clubs, as the Mafia were known, would help gender impersonators obtain the necessary paperwork to perform. Organized by club management, performers put on their best straight drag and went to the police station together, usually one that had already been paid off, to get their cards en masse.

On December 5, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted the 21st Amendment, which ended Prohibition by allowing states to regulate their own alcohol sales. The following year, the newly established New York State Liquor Authority began to push queer culture back to the fringes of society. Laws "forbade the employment in a bar of anyone convicted of a felony or certain other offenses," according to the 2005 edition of historian Paul Chevigny's book "Gigs: Jazz and the Cabaret Laws in New York City." The "felony and certain other offenses" category included the aforementioned degeneracy and disorderly conduct, for which queer people were arrested at disproportionately higher rates, often by entrapment.

The State Liquor Authority also required bars to maintain orderly conduct on their premises, which was coded language meant to prohibit queer patrons. Bars became strict in their own policing of clientele for fear of losing their liquor licenses: Should an undercover agent of the SLA find queer people in their midst while visiting a bar, there would be a zero-tolerance policy. Gay bars shuttered, and their clientele searched for new spots by word of mouth until they'd invariably close, too.

The situation only got worse after the announcement that the 1939 World's Fair would be held in New York. Planning began in 1935, construction the following year. New York had not hosted a World's Fair since 1853, and this one would take place across the 1,200 acres of what's now Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, but had previously been a City dump. When the fair opened on April 30, 1939, it featured approximately 60 countries, 33 states, and more than 1,000 exhibitions. Over $150 million would ultimately go into the project, nearly $3 billion in today’s currency.

Meant to commemorate the 150th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration, the fair welcomed over 44 million people, including the king and queen of England, who made their way through international pavilions showcasing "The World of Tomorrow."

Ahead of the fair, Mayor La Guardia initiated a cleanup of the entire city. Entrapment continued, and gay men in particular became stereotyped by the State Liquor Authority to be easily "discovered" if on a bar's premises, whether due to "campy behavior [or, as the agents called it, their 'effeminacy'], their use of rouge or lipstick, their practice of calling each other by camp or women's names, the way they talked or the fact that they talked about the opera or other suspect topics, or other aspects of their dress and carriage," as historian George Chauncey writes.

This engendered in some gay men who "passed," a spirit of contempt for high camp presentation and aesthetics, drag included, an ire that persisted for generations. Yet the cultural backlash didn't stop drag from existing. La Guardia's designation that gender impersonation should appear only below 14th Street or above 72nd Street incubated drag epicenters across New York. The mob continued to pay off police officers in Greenwich Village, and in Harlem, cops, morality societies, and SLA agents were less intrusive, their racism deflecting their gaze toward white neighborhoods instead. With the removal of drag and queer culture from Times Square, New York's showplace to the world, drag was also effectively removed from the mainstream narratives of American culture it had occupied throughout the 1920s and early 1930s.

The turn against queerness was not unique to New York City. Acts specifically designated as "pansy" or "fairy" would no longer be allowed on the vaudeville circuit, and drag became illegal in other parts of the country. Detroit and Cleveland were among the Midwest cities where female impersonation, though highly regulated, was still allowed, but performers weren't allowed to cavort with guests offstage and had to wear male attire outside. Because of the Hays Code, generations of people would not see an openly queer character or a gender impersonator onscreen in the U.S. until at least 1964. A spate of crimes against children in the 1930s in Washington, New Hampshire, and Florida, among others, incorrectly yet knowingly scapegoated homosexuals in the national media, amplifying a culture of queer panic. And America's apprehension toward queer life would only accelerate during World War II.

Already a user?Log in

Thanks for reading!

Give us your email address to keep reading two more articles for free

See all subscription options

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Hell Gate

See all posts