June 25, 2019
How Dressing in Drag Was Labeled a Crime in the 20th CenturyBreaking News
tags: Stonewall, LGBTQ
Rusty Brown started dressing as a man, first as a disguise to get a factory job since she lost her war-time position as a machinist at the close of World War II, then in order to work as a drag king. This is when her troubles began.
“I have been arrested in New York more times than I have fingers and toes,” she told an interviewer from the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project in 1983, “for wearing pants and a shirt.” At that time, she says, “you had to have three pieces of female attire” in order to avoid being arrested for cross-dressing.
In LGBTQ circles around the country, this was known as the three-article rule—or the three-piece law. It was referenced everywhere—including in reportsabout arrests in Greenwich Village in the weeks and months leading up to the 1969 Stonewall Riots.
The problem is, the law technically never existed. Instead, accounts suggest that police generally used old, often unrelated laws to target LGBT people throughout the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s.
Laws criminalizing cross-dressing spread like wildfire around the United States in the mid-19th century. New York’s, dating back to 1845, was one of the oldest. It declared it a crime to have your “face painted, discolored, covered, or concealed, or [be] otherwise disguised… [while] in a road or public highway.”
The state originally intended the law to punish rural farmers, who had taken to dressing like Native Americans to fight off tax collectors. But as scholar William N. Eskridge, Jr. recounts in his encyclopedic book Gaylaw, “by the beginning of the 20 century, gender inappropriateness… was increasingly considered a sickness and public offense.”
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