In November 2014, an appeals court in Malaysia overturned a state law that barred Muslim men from dressing as women in a historic victory for the country’s transgender women.
The court found the law unconstitutional, characterizing it as “degrading, oppressive and inhuman.” The verdict was heralded by human rights organizations worldwide as a step in recognition of modern human rights.
But some similar landmark rule changes in the United States were only a few years ahead.
In fact, a person perceived as male who dressed in clothing customarily designed for women could technically be arrested in New York for “impersonating a female” as recently as 2011 — the remnants of a 19th century statewide law prohibiting wearing “the dress of the opposite sex.”
In Columbus, Ohio, where one of the earliest ordinances was instituted, an 1848 law forbade a person from appearing in public “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” In the decades that followed, more than 40 U.S. cities created similar laws limiting the clothing people were allowed to wear in public.
The wave of laws in the 1850s represented a “new development specific to gender presentation,” according to Susan Stryker, an associate professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona.
In effect, the anti-cross-dressing laws became a flexible tool for police to enforce normative gender on multiple gender identities, including masculine women and people identifying as transgender or gender non-conforming.
But as time progressed and fashion evolved, it was increasingly difficult to even define what “cross-dressing” entailed from a law-enforcement perspective, Stryker told PBS NewsHour.
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation organization defines cross-dressers specifically as heterosexual men who occasionally wear clothes, makeup and accessories culturally associated with women.
“By the time the counterculture was in full bloom, cross-dressing arrests were routinely getting thrown out of court,” she said. “Arresting cross-dressing people was mainly just a form of police harassment.”
The timeline above shows the evolution of several U.S. laws enforcing sex-specific dress. Most of these laws have since been overturned.
Sources: “Transgender History” by Susan Stryker, “Gaylaw: Challenging the Apartheid of the Closet” by William N. Eskridge Jr., “A Dress Not Belonging to His or Her Sex” by Clare Sears, “Cross Dressing and the Criminal” by I. Bennett Capers,”The Cross-Dressing Case for Bathroom Equality” by Levi and Redman, “Transgender History & Geography: Crossdressing in Context, Volume 3” by G.G. Bolich, as well as the Transgender Law Center.