Laws criminalizing cross-dressing, a.k.a. “masquerade laws”, became rampant around the U.S. in the mid-19th century. New York’s was one of the oldest laws regarding this, dating back to 1845 when the state declared it a crime to — simply put — look like the gender opposite of yours.
At the onset of the 20th century, “gender inappropriateness” became increasingly considered a disease and a public offense, according to William N. Eskridge Jr.’s book “Gaylaw.”
We are indeed lucky to have been born in an era where self-expression in various forms, including clothing, is more accepted and encouraged. But apparently, arrests for cross-dressing still occurred in modern-day New York, as recent as 2011.
Not only that, but some countries in Asia, particularly Muslim countries, still enforce laws limiting the clothes men and women can wear.
So if you find yourself the target of a police officer’s radar gun because of your clothing, know that you are not a new case. To avoid such inconvenience, take note of these fashion precautions to take when traveling:
1. Casual Cross-dressing: United States
In 1913, A person who we would refer today as a tans-man was arrested in Brooklyn for “masquerading in men’s clothes” in a bar. Fortunately, the police were forced to let him go because the state’s masquerade laws were only intended to punish the costumed dress used to cover up a crime. But the trans-man’s luck was short-lived because he was re-arrested promptly for “associating with idle and vicious persons.”
Though his alleged crime was of a completely different nature, the judge stated that his clothes were still the reason for his punishment, and sentenced three years in a reformatory.
You might think arrests like this no longer happens in the U.S., but in 2013, a 24-year-old gay man in Roosevelt Avenue and 95th Street in Queens was apprehended by cops while he was donned in feminine clothing. Yhatzine Lafontain had just been leaving a restaurant with a friend when a man approached them and told them they looked good. But after a few minutes, an undercover cop came upon them and arrested them, suspecting them of prostitution.
In another incident, Mitchyll Mora, a youth leader at a group called “Streetwise and Safe” was stopped and searched by the police for no reason. Mora was dressed in a “non-gender conforming” style at that time, which consisted of makeup, boots, and long earrings. The police made him put his hands up on a wall, then remarked a gay slur.
Arrests in the U.S. for offenses related to clothing seem more common among the LGBTQ+, blacks, and Latinxs. Though movements are already being made to stop such unlawful arrests and abuse of power, it would be wiser to be careful and to be wary of places where masquerade laws may apply.
2. Gender-Bender Costumes: New York City
Do some research before dressing up for Halloween in NYC. A man named Martin Boyce was collared by a cop on Halloween of 1968 because his Oscar Wilde’s costume was “too feminine”. Boyce argued by showing the cop the receipts of the costume, which he bought from a unisex store. He was let go shortly after.
New York’s old-fashioned masquerade laws didn’t cease to exist until 2011. Thankfully, costumed people are no longer risking arrests as much, but travelers who might be naive need to be more careful. After all, the laws may have changed, but not necessarily the abusive cops.
3. Not Wearing a Headscarf: Iran
In Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is illegal for women to leave their homes without a headscarf. Violating this law can cause you to be publicly admonished or arrested.
The law is very strict because it isn’t just women’s hair that needs to be covered, but also their whole bodies. Therefore, shorts, mini-skirts or dresses, and sleeveless tops are not a clothing option when you travel to those countries, even if you’re only stopping over their airports.
Yes, even non-Muslims are required to abide by this law. Women’s Rights activists in Iran are calling for the help of Westerners to stop such oppression, and for women to be given a voice.
4. Wearing “Offensive” Clothing: United Kingdom
50-year-old Paul Grange was arrested by police in the UK for allegedly wearing an offensive Hillsborough T-shirt. It roused a debate on whether his arrest was necessary, and caused many to wonder if it is illegal to wear a certain item of clothing that’s deemed offensive.
Grange was arrested in accordance with Section 5 of the Public Order Offense Rules, which relates to the display of “threatening and abusive sign and writing.” According to Chris Topping, a partner at Broudie Jackson Canter, wearing an offensive T-shirt is no different from someone coming up to you and causing you distress and alarm.
So even if you mean no harm, be careful in choosing T-shirts to wear around the U.K. To ensure your security, just choose a shirt without words on it!
Traveling in style should be a fun and liberating experience, not risky. Respect a country’s laws, but also know your rights when you’re apprehended for an offense you absolutely didn’t commit.