Despite well-publicized violence in recent years, many LGBT people continue to flock to San Francisco’s annual Halloween celebration in the Castro District. Neighborhood denizens sport outrageous costumes and local restaurants and bars draw large crowds of revelers – especially this year, with the Giants in the World Series!  But what many LGBT people don’t know is that the Castro’s Halloween celebration – like many Halloween celebrations in queer areas – is not just a neighborhood party.  It’s the legacy of challenges to oppressive laws regulating gender expression.

Consider that in 1863, San Francisco enacted an ordinance that dictated that “any person [who] shall appear…in a dress not belonging to his or her sex…should be guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction, shall pay a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars.” Oakland, CA enacted a similar law in 1879, as did dozens of other municipalities throughout the United States. Cincinnati, OH enacted such a law as recently as 1974! Such laws were frequently and disproportionately enforced against working class and low income LGBT people throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, except for one night a year – Halloween.  On Halloween night, LGBT people were as free as everyone else to conceal (or reveal) their true identities. The evening likely had special resonance for queer people who hid their sexual orientation, for those who frequented gay bars in darkened alleys and speakeasies during the rest of the year, and especially for transgender people. Although historians don’t know for certain why laws regulating gendered clothing existed, it’s hard not to speculate that they were the product of complex fears about “appropriate” behavior for men and women, wealthy people and poor people, immigrants and U.S.-born populations. By controlling how people expressed their gender, race, and class, the state tried to regulate who had access to wealth, power, and privilege.

Today there are few, if any, laws left on the books (at least in the USA) prohibiting people from wearing the clothing of the “opposite sex.”  And yet we at the Transgender Law Center regularly hear of unlawful attempts to regulate the gender expression of transgender people:  we hear from students who are told that they cannot dress in accordance with their gender identities, from employees who are told they can’t be addressed by the name and pronouns that match their gender identity at work, and from low-income and homeless folks who are told that they cannot be placed in the gender-specific living area of a shelter or hospital.  And nothing could be farther from the truth!

In California, transgender people have the right to have their gender identity recognized in the workplace, in public accommodations, and in public or charter schools–and not just on Halloween. If you or someone you know is being prohibited from expressing their gender identity, please contact someone on TLC’s legal staff at 415-865-0176

To learn more about laws regulating cross-dressing and transgender history, see Susan Stryker’s Transgender History and Nan Alamilla Boyd’s Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965.