Lucas Hilderbrand is Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of
Show Me Love: Female Impersonation and Drag in Kansas City
Drag became a gay bar staple in the 1960s as a shared audience expression of gay sensibility; the relationship between the performers and their fans marked these bars as gay. The terms female impersonation and drag have historically been used interchangeably, but this chapter traces their differential meanings to distinguish between acts performed for predominantly straight audiences (female impersonation) in theatrical settings and those for predominantly gay ones (drag) in the contexts of private parties and bars. Focusing on the Jewel Box Lounge and the Colony Bar in Kansas City, located one block apart during the 1960s, this chapter examines how show venues made these distinctions legible while gay bars were emerging as visible and politicized spaces. This chapter connects these 1960s venues with their prehistories in vaudeville, touring acts, and cabarets and extends this chronology to the present. The subsequent interlude examines the concept of gay bars as safe spaces in Detroit.