On This Day in Trans History: Trans Woman Joy Polley challenges Chicago’s anti-cross dressing ordinance.

[Image description: headline from Chicago Tribune reading “Teacher Challenges ‘Drag Law.'” Content warning: policing, transmisogyny, job discrimination

On the evening of July 17th 1971, Joy Polley was enjoying a drink in a tavern in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Polley was 27 years old, a Southwest Side resident, and a teacher. By the end of the night, she would find herself handcuffed, humiliated, and ready to mount a legal challenge against Chicago’s hated “zipper” laws.

Polley said the police officer who arrested her did so because of what he called a “discrepancy in sex.” Polley was transgender woman. Under Chicago’s local ordinance 192-8, known as the zipper law, Polley risked arrest at any time she left her house in feminine clothing. Located in a chapter entitled “Public Morals,” ordinance 192-8 read as follows:

Any person who shall appear in a public place in a state of nudity, or in a dress not belonging to his or her sex, with intent to conceal his or her sex, or in an indecent or lewd dress, or who shall make any indecent exposure of his or her person, shall be fined not less than $20.00 nor more than $500.00 for each offense [emphasis mine].[1]

By emphasizing an assumed “intent to conceal his or her sex,” ordinance 192-8 especially targeted trans women and trans-femmes.  Trans-femininity was depicted in popular media as inherently deceptive, with trans women being framed as wearing disguises in order to commit crimes.  Ordinance 192-8 codified that prevailing prejudice against trans-femininity into law. For trans women like Polley, the consequences of this law were devastating.

When Polley was booked, she found herself not only charged under ordinance 192-8, but also facing charges of resisting arrest and battery.  It was not uncommon for trans women to face trumped up charges like these – a brutal injustice that continues today, especially for Black trans women.  Soon, when word of her arrest and her trans identity circulated, Polley lost her teaching position. A simple night out left Polley unemployed and facing a difficult legal battle. The officer who arrested Polley probably expected her to accept being arrested and humiliated without protest, but Polley was ready to fight.

On March 17th Judge Lawrence Genesen struck down the case, with an option for it to be reinstated. Although she could have let the matter end there, Polley decided to challenge the constitutionality of her arrest, seeking to have the ordinance 192-8 struck down. She wasn’t the only trans woman to do so. The Chicago Tribune reported  that many of the trans people arrested under the zipper laws were challenging its constitutionality.  In fact, when threatened with such suits, the state usually decided to drop the cases, as an attorney for the state openly admitted. This shows the profound frustration with the zipper law experienced by trans women and the scope of their resistance.

Polley’s challenge to ordinance 192-8 was not successful. However, her case, including the job discrimination she experienced, was highlighted in the newsletter of Chicago’s first formal transgender organization, the Transvestite/Transsexual Legal Committee. Later, the very same arguments she made against the zipper laws were accepted by a different Chicago judge. Ordinance 192-8 was struck down because of the resistance of trans women like Joy Polley. Her story shows demonstrates how slow can be in coming, but also demonstrates the importance of the resistance of everyday people, even when their courage goes unremembered.

[1] Tracy Baim, Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City’s Gay Community (Agate Publishing, 2009), 91.

Like learning about trans history?  Support this project on Patreon!h o t - a i r