Cross-dressing (sometimes called transvestism), when a person of one gender wears dress assigned to another gender, has historically been allowed under certain circumstances. These circumstances may be religious. In parts of India today, male devotees wear women’s clothing to honour female deities in certain Hindu temple ceremonies (click here). Cross-dressing was and continues to be allowed in other popular religious-based festivals, such as Carnival, Mardi Gras, and Purim. Cross dressing is allowed, too, as entertainment (e.g., male actors played women in Elizabethan English theatre and in Japanese kabuki). At the same time ,cross-dressing was and is often viewed with suspicion and unease (for a short history of cross dressing around the time of the playwright William Shakespeare, click here).
One of the earliest laws in the US against cross dressing appeared in 1848, when the city of Columbus, Ohio, made it illegal for anyone to appear in public ‘in a dress not belonging to his or her sex’. This law was not overturned until 1974 (see Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco, by Claire Sears, 2015, Durham: Duke University Press.). In the following decades after Columbus over forty US cities issued comparable laws.
The motivation behind this law may not have been policing gender, but rather to prevent deception. Some historians speculate that the spate of American laws following the Columbus regulation was designed to stop Civil War-era (1860-1865) male military deserters escaping detection by posing as women.
As mentioned earlier, during the 1950s-60s, police in New York and other American cities enforced a “three-item rule” which targeted people wearing the ‘wrong’ gender clothing. In order to avoid arrest for public disguise or impersonation, a person had to wear three items of gender appropriate clothing. Lesbians who wore men’s clothing in public were particular targets of the “three-item rule”, but so too were gay men, transgender people and unlucky heterosexual party-goers.