Music, Race, and Drag: The Hidden History of Drag Queens in Jazz Clubs of 1930s Indianapolis

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:00 AM
Adams Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Stephen Lane II, Purdue University
Indianapolis’ Indiana Avenue was once home to a bustling African American community. Known as the Avenue to its residents situated on the outskirts of downtown, was a vibrant place full of jazz clubs and home of the Madam Walker Theater. The same jazz clubs of the 1930s hosted some of the hottest drag shows in the city which has come to the surface during my research of this glossed-over history of the Avenue. Along with famous jazz performers like Wes Anderson there were drag queens or female impersonators that deserve notice such as Miss Tangy Dupree who danced with an eight-foot boa constrictor. The jazz scene drew crowds, but the female impersonators brought down the house. These female impersonators were led by gay Black men. It is difficult to say to what degree some of the performers would have identified as heterosexual or transgender. Yet, many drag queens had police records that labeled them as "queer."

Despite police harassment, drag queens led by gay Black men created outstanding shows that drew the cosmopolitan Black people looking to be entertained. Some local drag queens reached international success and were able to tour the country. One drag performer, William Bogan, won first prize at the Cosmopolitan School of Music and Dance for his drag performance and was able to leave his job as a book clerk at the all-black Crispus Attucks High School and perform full time in 1936.

Utilizing digital technologies that provide key word search, gay Black history can be uncovered and told by historians. Even in what is viewed as conservative Indianapolis, Indiana there was a vibrant drag culture along Indiana Avenue in the jazz clubs of the 1930s through the 1970s before the neighborhood was completely decimated by urban renewal-type policies.

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