Mrs. Adams: What an 1965 Arrest of a Black Woman can tell us about Racism and Transphobia

[Image description: A picture from the Chicago Defender of a Black woman named Mrs.  Adams.  She has short hair and a neutral expression.  Content warning: mention of sexual violence in the form of strip searches. misgendering, racism, trans-misogyny]

On July 7, 1965, the Chicago Defender newspaper reported on the detention and harassment of Mrs. Darlene Adams, a 24-year-old Black woman whom police accused of being a “female impersonator.”  The Defender described Adams as enduring “irreparable harm…to her reputation” because of the accusation.  The Defender implied that Mrs. Adams was a cisgender woman, but her case can tell us a lot about the treatment of Black trans women in the 1960s and 1970s and the strategies all Black women employed to establish respectability.

After the police stop Adams, they ordered her into a squad car where she was questioned and examined.  Police asked about her dress size, her shoe size, her hair, and her family.  The Defender, sympathetic to Adams, printed her answers and a description of her outfit, all of which seemed establish her as a cisgender woman.   Police examined her arms and legs.  The Defender also implied that they may have raised her dress, quoting Adams: “When I got out of the squad car the driver told me to pull down my dress or I might be embarrassed and people might think they had done something to me. I told them, ‘You can’t embarrass me any more than you have already.’”  This description implies that Chicago police likely regularly strip searched transgender people in their custody.  Of course, that remains true to this day.  This newspaper article is very valuable to historians because we have very few written accounts from Black transgender women in Chicago during this time.

This article also provides insight into the reasons that police gave for harassing Black trans women and other people they found suspicious. Trans identity itself was criminalized in Chicago at the time Adams was arrested. Trans people could be arrested under ordinance 192-8 for dressing in the clothes that made them comfortable.  However, the police didn’t reference that law directly.  Instead, they justified their actions by invoking the specter of trans-feminine criminality. According to Adams, “This one officer told me a man had just been robbed at 63rd and Cottage Grove by a female impersonator. I asked them, ‘Do I look like a man to you?’ They said they did not know for sure what I was and that I would have to be searched. Then the two of them discussed whether or not to take me in.”  The Defender reported that police records contained no mention of the incident, which raises questions about how often police kept reports on their harassment of trans people.

While this article tells as a lot about the policing of transgender people, I think the most important lessons we can take away are about Blackness.  The way that the police treated Adams demonstrated more than the intense police suspicion that all Black people confronted.  It also demonstrated the ways that Black femininity was regarded as artifice and the legitimate target of investigation.  This tells us something very important about trans-misogynistic criminal archetypes.  By trans-misogynistic criminal archetypes, I mean the cultural and legal frameworks that justify the policing and imprisonment of trans femmes by constructing trans-femininity by it as deceptive and criminal.  Adam’s artist shows that these criminal archetypes were (and are) an extension of this anti-Black misogyny.  Scholars and activists still have a lot of work to do understanding this dynamic.  I recommend checking out the work of C. Riley Snorton, Hortense Spiller, and Julia Serano (this a very limited list, but I hope to share more resources as I learn more).  There is certainly a lot more to say about this article, but I am going to have to stop here. I hope this glimpse into history (and my own research process) is useful to you.

h o t - a i r

Like learning more about trans history?  Support If We Knew Trans History on Patreon.