Heteronormative Gender Policing

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Modern Perspectives and Background

Contemporary queer scholars such as William Eskridge and Clare Sears have demonstrated the ways in which municipal laws against cross-dressing were used to regulate public space in many 19th-century U.S. cities. They functioned in much the same way as did eugenic laws and practices, to produce a public space that excluded non-heteronormative expressions of gender and sexuality. A common phrase in these laws explicitly forbade persons from appearing in public “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” Most of the earliest known ordinances of this type appeared in the Old Northwest—Columbus, Ohio in 1848; Chicago in 1851; Springfield, Illinois in 1856; Toledo in 1862.

It’s interesting to speculate about how historian John D’Emilio’s well-known thesis on “capitalism and gay identity” might help explain this pattern. D’Emilio argues that contemporary gay communities and identities did not form until industrial capitalism created a need for large populations of factory laborers, who became concentrated in cities away from the surveillance by family, church, and peers that would have characterized their lives in small towns and the countryside. The relative anonymity to be found as part of a large urban masses created new opportunities for homosexual relationships to flourish, or for people to begin living a new life in another gender—and, perhaps, required new forms of social control, such as laws against cross-dressing, to maintain heteronormative conditions.

In Bloomington

Legal Specifics


In Bloomington, city ordinances are passed by the City Council through a majority vote, after which the mayor can sign or veto it. "Local ordinance" and "municipal ordinance" refer to the same thing: laws governing the municipal area of Bloomington, Indiana. Municipal ordinances are enforced through fines; only the state of Indiana is authorized to create criminal laws, which are enforce through arrest and jail time.

Municipal Code of Bloomington

Research indicates that "crossdressing" (defined as the wearing of clothing associated with the "opposite sex" of one's sex-assigned-at-birth) has never specifically been a violation of the Bloomington Municipal Code. However, in many jurisdictions, there were laws against "disguise" or "mayhem" that were used to curb crossdressing. Whether such laws were used to such ends in Bloomington is unclear.

In 2006, an ordinance was passed by the Bloomington City Council prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or gender expression. However, there are no specified fines for violation of the ordinance or any listed means of enforcing it.

Crossdressing in Indiana and the Midwest


Clearly, much research remains to be done to answer the complex question of how gender and sexuality are regulated through public dress, but a fascinating document in the Kinsey Institute archives offers an intriguing point of departure. In 1971, James Howell of the North Carolina-based Transvestite Information Service (T.V.I.S), wrote to law enforcement officers all over the country, asking for information regarding local laws against cross-dressing. Howell assembled a loose-leaf binder filled with 184 pages responses, including three from Indiana municipalities—Indianapolis, South Bend, and Hammond. Unfortunately, all three cities stonewalled and dodged the question, suggesting that Howell seek legal counsel to obtain the requested information.

Outside Indiana

Although the three cities in Indiana stonewalled the Mr. Howell's inquiries, some cities in the state of Illinois, including Glen Ellyn and Chicago, gave very specific answers to Mr. Howell, including copies of the ordinance and the typical amount of the associated fine.

Several other cities in the Midwest responded similarly to the Indiana cities, however, by refusing to "offer legal counsel" by answering Howell's question.


Susan Stryker, Transgender History (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008), 33.

John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity.”

James Howell, “Cross Dressing Laws and Ordinances in the United States,” (Transvestite Information Service, North Carolina, 1971). Kinsey Institute Library, 343.C95.