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How Dressing in Drag Was Labeled a Crime in the 20th Century

June 25, 2019 in History

By Hugh Ryan

In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, police arrested LGBTQ people based on an informal “three-article” rule. The Stonewall Riots helped turn the tide against these arrests.

Rusty Brown started dressing as a man, first as a disguise to get a factory job since she lost her , “by the beginning of the 20 century, gender inappropriateness… was increasingly considered a sickness and public offense.”

Existing laws against costumed dress, even if they didn’t specifically mention cross dressing—collectively referred to as “masquerade laws”—were increasingly pressed into service around the country to punish gender variance.

That these laws were often ill-suited to the task didn’t matter.

In Brooklyn in 1913, for instance, a person who we would today call a transgender man was arrested for “masquerading in men’s clothes,” smoking and drinking in a bar. When the magistrate noted that the state’s masquerade law was intended only to criminalize costumed dress used as a cover for another crime, the police were forced to let the man go. However, they promptly re-arrested him, charged him with “associating with idle and vicious persons,” and found a new magistrate to try the case.

When he was found guilty and sentenced to three years in a reformatory, the judge made it clear that despite the new charge, he was being punished for his dress. “No girl would dress in men’s clothing unless she is twisted in her moral viewpoint,” the magistrate proclaimed from the bench, according to a September 3, 1913 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Many men dressed as women were locked up on charges of masquerading and indecent exposure at the National Variety Artists’ Exotic Carnival and Ball held at the Manhattan Center in 1962. Police and detectives herded the costumed guests into police wagons in front of the ball.

Three-Article Rule Becomes Code

As America’s fear and panic over LGBTQ people became increasingly vocal and widespread in the mid-20 century, arrests like this became more and more common. Still, those arrests primarily revolved around 19th-century masquerade laws, none of which specified a number of articles of clothing to avoid arrest. So where does the idea of the three-article rule come from?

Kate Redburn, a JD/PhD candidate in queer and trans legal history at Yale University (who uses the gender-neutral pronoun, “they”), has discovered a few clues in their research. First, they say that mentions of the three-article rule are almost all …read more


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