Public Policing of Gender

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Modern Perspectives and Historical 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. In San Francisco, California, which passed a municipal ordinance against cross-dressing in the 1860s, violators were brought before a city court where they could be fined or sentenced to terms in the county jail.

Capitalism and Transgender Practices?

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 the large urban masses created new opportunities for homosexual relationships to flourish, or for people to begin living life in another gender—and, perhaps, required new forms of social control, such as laws against cross-dressing, to maintain heteronormative conditions.

Circumstances In Bloomington

The technicalities of law and administrative procedures in each particular location determine the precise ways in which different jurisdictions regulate gender and sexuality. In Bloomington, city ordinances are passed by the City Council through a majority vote, after which the mayor can sign or veto them. Municipal ordinances are enforced through fines. In Indiana, only the state is authorized to create criminal laws that can be enforced through arrest and jail time.

Research thus far does not indicate that cross-gender dressing has ever been specifically forbidden by the Bloomington Municipal Code. It remains true, however, that in many localities, persons apprehended in public “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex” are charged under more vaguely defined “nuisance” ordinances such as “creating a public disturbance,” “obstructing the sidewalk,” or “disorderly conduct.” It is not known to what extent cross-gender dressing has been policed in Bloomington, or the precise mechanisms through which that policing would be enforced. The apparent lack of formal mechanisms for regulating public expression of gender may suggest that laws against cross-dressing might be more characteristic of larger cities than smaller towns, where face-to-face interactions and a greater degree of familiarity with all members of the community might be sufficient for maintaining heteronormativity as the default condition for public space.

It would also be interesting to know if any differences could be observed in prosecution or harassment directed at cross-dressing on the streets and in bars, rather than at sorority and fraternity functions, or in student theatricals similar to Harvard’s Hasty Pudding show, which features cross-dressing; such theatricals were widely popular at colleges and universities across the country between the 1890s and 1910s.

Cross-dressing Regulation Elsewhere in Indiana and the Midwest

Scattered pieces of evidence suggest that some small towns in the region, as well as the city of Chicago, did in fact have ordinances against cross-dressing in place by the 1960s. The “Since Stonewall” local history exhibit for Champaign-Urbana, on, begins with a detailed narrative of the 1971 arrest under an anti-cross-dressing ordinance of some gay men who had attended a Halloween party in drag. The exhibit then chronicles the campaign to overturn this prohibition, which was instrumental in politicizing Champaign-Urbana’s LGBT community.

Clearly, much research still needs to be done to answer the complex question of how gender and sexuality have been regulated through public dress in the Midwest, 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 dodged the question by claiming they were disallowed by law from providing “legal counsel,” and suggesting that Howell seek legal representation to obtain the requested information.

Although the three cities in Indiana stonewalled Howell's inquiries, some cities in the state of Illinois, including Glen Ellyn and Chicago, provided detailed answers, including copies of the ordinances and the typical amounts of the associated fines.


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

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

“Repeal of the Champaign and Urbana Cross Dressing Laws, December 1971,” Since Stonewall Local LGBT History Exhibit,

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

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