You’ve heard of the Stonewall Riots, which took place in New York City. You may know about the riots at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, in San Francisco. If you’re really interested in transgender history, then maybe you’ve even read about the sit-ins at Dewey’s Lunch Counter in Philadelphia. But can you name a single event in U.S. transgender history that happened in the Midwestern United States?
In accounts of U.S. LGBT history, the coasts loom large. Historians have focused their research on San Francisco, L.A., New York City and other coastal cities, drawing national conclusions from what happened in those locations. There are some good reasons for that: during WWII, port cities where U.S. soldiers docked for leave became important hubs of LGBT culture. But further research has revealed that other U.S. regions have rich LGBT pasts. The Midwest is no exception.
My research focuses on transgender history in the Midwest, a particularly neglected area. However, not only is the Midwest home to growing transgender communities today, but historians know that it has been the site of important events in transgender history. Here are two events that prove understanding U.S. transgender history is impossible without considering the Midwest.
The first anti-cross-dressing law was passed in Columbus, Ohio.
Yes, we’re starting with the bad news. In 1848, Columbus, Ohio passed a local law forbidding people from appearing in public “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” Chicago, Illinois soon followed suit with a similar law. Over the next decades, 40 cities in the United States passed local laws that regulated dress and gender expression in similar ways. 17 of those cities – almost half – were located in the Midwest.
Historian Clare Sears researched the impact of dress regulation in San Francisco. She argues that San Francisco’s law played a larger role in maintaining racialized hierarchies and shaping newly urbanized public spaces. However, dress-regulation laws likely had different impacts in the Midwest.
One reason why we can’t assume the effects of anti-cross-dressing laws were the same in both California and the Midwest is this: we know the Midwest was home to a large number of trans man. Historian Emily Skidmore discusses newspaper coverage of what reporters called “female husbands,” arguing that from 1870 to 1930, trans men found greater acceptance in rural communities, including small towns in Midwest, than in urban areas. We also know, thanks to historians Ryan Patrick Murphy and Alex T. Urquhart, that cross-dressing was embraced in lumber camps in Minnesota from 1840 to 1920.
Many, many questions remain about how dress-regulation laws impacted people in the Midwest. Who was arrested under them? How were these laws a part of larger regulatory regimes? How did they changed over time. We don’t yet know.
In particular, historians have not fully researched dress regulation in the post-World War II era, a time in which transgender people began to organize collectively and began to make more overtly political demands. Post-World War II, queer and trans people held large public balls in which cross-dressing was common took place in the city of Chicago. They also held smaller secret, underground gatherings that included drag performances in Columbus. My research is focused on this era. I believe that learning more about the communities transgender people formed in a location and time period marked by political repression can help us understand what is unique about transgender movements and give us ideas for resisting in other difficult circumstances –like the situation that U.S. transgender people are in today.
The first anti-discrimination law to include transgender history was passed in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In 1975, 127 years after Columbus passed its dress regulation law, the city if Minneapolis passed the first municipal anti-discrimination law to protect transgender people. It’s hard to overstate the enormity of this accomplishment: most U.S. cities still don’t have trans-inclusive protections today. In fact, Minneapolis was one of the most transgender-friendly cities in the United States at the time. While transgender residents of Minnesota still struggled to find jobs, to find safety in public, and enjoyed little to no social acceptance, Minneapolis did provide opportunities that no other U.S. city could boast. The Transsexual Research Project operated in the University of Minnesota, making Minneapolis an attractive location for people in search of gender-related medical services. Trans people were also able to access social services. Furthermore, gay organizations that celebrated expansive gender expression, such as FREE and its associated drag venue Club, were organizing.
Why was the Midwestern United States the site of some of the earliest formal restrictions on cross-gender expression? Why did the region also give rise to some of the earliest civil rights victories for transgender and queer people? We don’t know yet – and that’s one of the questions that I am trying to answer through my research.
What we do know is this: historians must consider the Midwest if we are to understand U.S. transgender history fully. No account of U.S. LGBT pasts is complete without it.
 Clare Sears, Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Duke University Press, 2015), 3.