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The Right to Dress However You Want

Transgender Americans are under attack. Across the country, Republicans have introduced an avalanche of legislation to restrict access to gender-affirming health care, censor how gender is discussed in schools, prevent trans people from using public bathrooms and even ban drag shows and cross-dressing onstage. In March, Tennessee criminalized drag performances where children are present. In April, Montana Republicans barred Representative Zooey Zephyr from the floor of the state House in part for her vocal opposition to a similar bill, which is now headed to the governor’s desk.

Attacks on gender nonconformity — and cross-dressing in particular — have a long history in America. Anti-drag laws similar to the one passed in Tennessee and even more restrictive cross-dressing bans were part of municipal criminal codes for most of the 20th century. But just as the laws aren’t new, neither is the fight against them. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, gender nonconforming activists argued that sartorial censorship harms anyone who deviates from rigid gender norms. These activists won in court. Looking back on their victories can inspire trans people and their allies today, not just by highlighting effective legal strategies but also by reminding us that state-mandated gender conformity is an affront to everyone’s right of self-expression.

Legal attacks on gender expression like those being passed today in Florida, Iowa, Montana and elsewhere have disturbing similarities to those that were on the books throughout most of the 20th century: Then, cities across the country criminalized appearing in public “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” Others prohibited “female impersonators” or “masquerade.” These laws were routinely used to harass and discredit anyone who transgressed gender norms, including feminists who wore men’s clothes to protest gender inequality, sex workers signaling that they were available to be engaged, drag performers, cross-dressers and people who today might identify as transgender. Arrests could have major consequences. Many people arrested under these ordinances lost their jobs and families.

Others endured violence and humiliation from the police. Toni Mayes, a trans woman in Houston, did everything she could think of to avoid running afoul of a law banning cross-dressing “with intent to disguise” in the mid-1970s. She went so far as to ask the City Council and the police department for ID cards to protect trans people from these arrests. When they refused, Ms. Mayes began wearing a sign that read “My body is male” to avoid the appearance of hiding her identity. The police proceeded to arrest her eight times in three years anyway. At one point she spent nine hours in a men’s jail. “I felt terrible,” she later told a reporter. “I had my wig torn off and there were a lot of remarks I didn’t care for.” The publicity meant that she was “immediately recognized everywhere, can’t get a job, and has no income.” She resolved to bring a constitutional challenge to the Houston ordinance so that other people could avoid the same harassment.

Ms. Mayes was not alone. Defendants had long challenged their arrests under these laws, but in the late 1960s and 1970s, a network of gender nonconforming activists began to win constitutional claims. These lawsuits helped solidify a growing political and social network of people who transgressed gender norms — “gender outlaws,” to use the author Kate Bornstein’s evocative phrase — some of whom identified as transvestites, street queens and transsexuals. Gender outlaws helped defeat similar ordinances in at least 16 cities by the end of the 1980s, according to my research.

Read entire article at New York Times