By the end of the 1920s much of the public image of gay people was still limited to the various drag balls in Greenwich Village and in Harlem, but the early 1930s saw a new development within a highly commercial context, bringing the gay subculture of the enclaves of Greenwich Village and Harlem onto the mainstream stages of midtown Manhattan in a veritable Pansy Craze from 1930 until the repeal of prohibition in 1933. After the repeal of prohibition, this tolerance waned. Any sympathetic portrayal of gay characters (termed sexual perverts) was prohibited by the Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code) from being included in Hollywood films. Performer Ray Bourbon was arrested many times for his act, considered tame by today's standards.
The 1920s and 1930s saw the emergence of notable and visible gay and lesbian presence and subculture in various cities in the USA. In many ways, New York City set the tone, particularly in its "bohemian artistic enclaves" of Greenwich Village and Harlem, as well as in the cabarets and speakeasies around the Broadway Theater District centered on Times Square. Whereas the late 19th century restricted gay male activity to the seedy red-light district under the elevated train of the Bowery, with an even less visible lesbian life largely restricted to private salons for upper class women and a quite limited dance hall life for the less well-off, Prohibition allowed the first emergence of a visible gay and lesbian life in a largely middle-class context. Prohibition forced a new mixing of all kinds of people—all in search of the same illicit drink, and economics made for a culture of at least mild tolerance if not outright "anything goes". As prohibition was quite bad for business in cosmopolitan cities, city officials and Madison Avenue conspired together to create the "Cult of the Urban Sophisticate" who was above the petty and outdated moralism of the Temperance movement. Not only did the 1920s see the emergence of visible, tolerated gay enclaves—but also the emergence of several gay-owned (or more often lesbian-owned) and operated speakeasies and clubs, precursors of the outright "gay" or "lesbian" bars. There was an increasing association of gay and lesbian people with a kind of cultural renaissance, with many artists and writers gay and lesbian, and many of the salons that nurtured this talent, whether in the Village, Harlem or in sister commentates in Paris, run by women, quite often lesbians.
This change is probably best illustrated by the brief meteoric rise of the career of Gene Malin. Several columnists noted Malin's talent, and in 1930, at age 22, Malin was booked at Louis Schwartz's elegant Club Abbey at 46th and 8th Ave. Although Malin was at times assisted by Helen Morgan JR., a popular drag artist of the day, he did not appear in drag himself. He did not impersonate women, but appeared as an openly gay male. He moved on stage and among the audience members as a tuxedo-clad, elegant, witty, wisecracking emcee.
The career of Bruz Fletcher (1906–1941) ran from about 1929 to 1940, including a long run from 1934 to 1940 at Club Bali in Los Angeles, a gay bar. When he committed suicide in 1941, at age 34, it was generally reported that he was despondent over his inability to find work as a gay performer. He had "a level of genius equaled by very, very few," recalled one of his fans. He became a master of gay code and double speak in order to survive and flourish in a very homophobic era. A singer, composer, novelist, playwright, the darling of sophisticated night spots in the 1930s. He left behind three albums of complex coded songs and two novels. His drama-filled life was a sad story of extremes and incredible plot twists. One of his more risqué recordings was called "My Doctor" (1935). His signature song "Drunk with Love" was daringly adopted by Frances Faye and became a standard in gay bars for decades to follow.
In 1932, Ray (Rae) Bourbon was working full-time as a female impersonator at clubs such as Jimmy's Back Yard in Hollywood and Tait's in San Francisco. At the latter, in May 1933, police raided his "Boys Will Be Girls" review during a live radio broadcast. In the later 1930s and early 1940s, he headlined at the Rendezvous in Los Angeles and starred in his own revue titled "Don't Call Me Madam." Through the 1950s and 1960s, Bourbon entertained at hundreds of clubs throughout the U.S. and released dozens of albums, certainly the most prolific female impersonator to have done the latter. His comedy was at once highbrow and lowbrow, overtly gay and covertly subversive. Despite his influence on gays, he remained vague about his own sexuality. He was married twice, and fathered at least one son. Bourbon excelled at generating numerous conflicting stories about himself.
- Queer Music Heritage: Queer Music Before Stonewall, by JD Doyle, June 2004.
- George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (Basic Books, 1994), Chapter 11. "Pansies on Parade: Prohibition and the Spectacle of the Pansy"
- "BRUZ FLETCHER Remembering a Gay Voice", tyleralpern.com. Retrieved 30 September 2013
- Randy A. Riddle, Don't Call Me Madam – The Life and Work of Ray Bourbon, 2005. Retrieved 19 October 2019
- Bud Coleman, ''Rae/Ray Bourbon'', in Billy J. Harbin, Kim Marra and Robert A. Schanke (eds.), ''The Gay and Lesbian Theatrical Legacy: A Biographical Dictionary of Major Figures in American Stage History in the Pre-Stonewall Era'', University of Michigan Press, 2005, pp.68–69. Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-09-12.
- George Chauncey: Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (Basic Books, 1994), especially Chapter 11: "Pansies on Parade"
- Chad Heap, Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885–1940 (University of Chicago Press, 2009), especially Chapter 6, "The Pansy and Lesbian Craze in White and Black"