Much-hated law hassled lesbians, drag queens, and transitioning trans people.
By Brandon Wolf
On August 12, 2015, the 35th anniversary of the repeal of Houston’s cross-dressing ordinance will be celebrated. The 1980 repeal ended 119 years of legal repression.
Three challenges to the law are recorded in Houston LGBT history—in 1967, 1972, and 1980. Rita Wanstrom, Ann Mayes, and Phyllis Frye are all credited with having effected changes that finally resulted in the repeal. Frye finally succeeded in having the hated Section 28-42.4 of the City’s Code of Ordinances removed from Houston law.
The Law’s 19th-century Origins
The history of anti-cross-dressing laws is unclear, but the first such law appeared in the United States in Columbus, Ohio, in 1848. In 1861, Houston became the eighth city to enact such an ordinance.
Author Susan Stryker offers one possible explanation for the timing. By the mid-1800s, the growth of large U.S. cities offered people social options beyond the tightly knit and repressive life found in rural America. Gay men, lesbians, and transgender individuals began to create their own secret worlds within large cities. With the rise in nonconforming behavior, city governments felt the need to enforce strict definitions of male and female attire.
Those laws may have served some legitimate purpose during a time when criminals regularly disguised their identities. A man dressed as a woman could find easier access into social situations, in order to commit thievery or worse. The vastness of women’s clothing in that era made it easy to conceal weapons or stolen goods.
At the time, male and female illusionists were among the most popular and highly paid entertainers in vaudeville shows. Off-stage, they made a point of openly living their lives as their birth gender, thus making their on-stage illusions a much-sought-after entertainment. But the act of cross-dressing “in the streets” had to be separated from theatrical performance by punishing it.
Around the turn of the century, religion gained a dominant role in American life. As family life became the desired American norm, organized religions exerted their power and forced their rigid social values (such as alcohol temperance, sexual discretion, and gender conformity) upon the general population.
Harassment of Bars
While the true cross-dressers learned to keep their activities secret, law-enforcement officers used the vague ordinance to harass male drag performers. If a performer was not on stage or on the way to the dressing room, they were arrested.
The ordinance also allowed police to enter Houston women’s bars like L’Amour La Femme and Just Marion and Lynn’s, and arrest lesbians wearing fly-front jeans. Frye recalls a story told to her by a lesbian who lived through those days: “If someone saw the police coming, all the women in fly-front jeans lined up, one in front of the other. They pulled down their jeans, turned them around, and pulled them back up. The person in back of them would then pull their zipper up.”
In 1967, Rita Wanstrom opened a new Houston bar, The Roaring Sixties. The club was soon raided, and 25 women were arrested. Rita paid everyone’s $25 fine. The club was raided again a month later.
After the second raid, Wanstrom formed a group called The Tumblebugs, after the hardworking beetle that takes many a fall but keeps striving. They raised $2,500 to hire famed trial lawyer Percy Foreman. Two nights before New Year’s Eve, the vice squad raided the club, and 11 women, including Wanstrom, were arrested. This time, they decided to plead “not guilty.”
Wearing dresses and makeup, Rita and the other women showed up in court. The case was on the docket four different times. The vice-squad officers involved failed to appear each time. On July 26, 1968, the case was dismissed.
The Persecution of Ann Mayes
1972 was a difficult year for a 25-year-old transitioning pre-op transwoman named Ann Mayes, who was arrested for “disguising as a woman.” After five arrests, Mayes went to then-police chief Herman Short and asked for an ID card that would let her appear in public in female attire—a requirement for the sexual reassignment surgery she planned to have after the required two years of living openly as a woman.
Short kicked her out of his office and told the media, “We aren’t in the business of issuing ID cards to queers. If ‘it’ breaks the law, ‘it’ will be arrested.”
That same year, the Houston ordinance was revised again to make enforcement easier. Changing fashions made it more difficult to define what constituted male and female clothing. The new ordinance outlawed “the appearance on any public street, sidewalk, alley or public thoroughfare with the intent to disguise one’s gender as that of the opposite gender.”
In August 1972, Mayes went down to the Houston police station to bail out a friend charged with cross-dressing. A month later, the charge was thrown out because the arrest was made indoors, and was therefore invalid under the new ordinance. As Mayes left the building after the hearing, she was arrested on the front steps of the station.
In December 1972, Mayes filed a $200,000 harassment suit against the Houston Police Department in federal court. She eventually lost the suit, but it was enough to keep the vice squad from bothering her until she could undergo surgery.
In January 1974, Mayes’ surgery was completed at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Two months later, a civil district court judge granted her request to have her name and gender identity legally changed. In a 1978 interview, Mayes said her life was now “emotionally secure and stable,” but that her days as a crusader were behind her.
The End of the Ordinance
However, transgender attorney Phyllis Frye’s crusader days were just beginning in the late ’70s. Frye held two engineering degrees from Texas A&M, but had been fired in 1976 for “being a dress-wearing freak.” The engineering community blackballed her.
Frye (who started to transition in September 1976) finally enrolled in a combination MBA and law-degree program at the University of Houston, but worried every day that she might be arrested. She lobbied local officials for over three years.
Only Council Member Johnny Goyen reacted positively. He invited Frye to his office, and told her he had always been upset by the mistreatment of Mayes.
Frye volunteered to work in Goyen’s office, and he introduced her to other council members and people in power. A repeal of the ordinance was finally introduced, and after being delayed by several tags, finally appeared on the August 12, 1980, council agenda. Mayor McConn was out of town, and Goyen was the mayor pro-tem.
At one point during the council session, Homer Ford and Larry McKaskell were busy on their phones. City Secretary Anna Russell handed the repeal to Goyen, who called for a vote. Ford and McKaskell failed to vote, which under council rules is considered a “yes” vote. There was only one “no” vote.
Houston’s hated cross-dressing ordinance was finally repealed—thanks in large part to Phyllis Frye, the crusader who was ironically the only one never arrested for violating it.
Brandon Wolf wrote about the Pride marshals in the June issue of OutSmart magazine.