A War on Cross-Dressing: Los Angeles’ Anti-Masquerading Ordinance of 1889 Targeted the Growing Queer Population of Los Angeles

A little over a hundred years after the City of Los Angeles was founded, the Anti-Masquerading Ordinance of 1889 was enacted to intimidate and discriminate against the growing queer sub-culture. It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that arrests for crossdressing were very common across the nation.

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At the turn of the century, the connection between theatrical impersonation and sexual behavior had not yet been made by American audiences. So, the anti-masquerading ordinance was not enforced against entertainers for the first few decades.  For example, the amazing and mysterious female impersonator Julian Eltinge began performing in female attire as a child and first appeared on Broadway in 1904. Eltinge performed throughout Europe and the U.S. on vaudeville circuits throughout the early 1900s. In 1917, he moved to Los Angeles to act in motion pictures and built a house for himself in Silver Lake. As aggressions toward the LGBTQ+ community ramped up. Eltinge maintained an exceptionally masculine profile offstage to combat rumors about his sexual orientation.

Rae Bourbon leaving the Beverly Hills Muncipal Court on Aug. 1, 1956 after arraignment for impersonating a woman. Bourbon denied the impersonation charges and showed the judge a certificate documenting his sex change.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, celebrity female impersonator Rae (Ray) Bourbon headlined various L.A. venues. However, despite his celebrity status, Bourbon was not exempt from the Masquerading law. At his Beverly Hills Municipal Court on Aug. 1, 1956 after arraignment for impersonating a woman, Bourbon denied the impersonation charges and showed the judge a certificate documenting his sex change. While many feared the anti-masquerading law and other hid their homosexuality entirely, some Angelenos celebrated their identities at drag balls, bars and Pershing Square. However, the most effeminate drag styles we usually reserved for indoor venues.

Until the 1960s, LAPD aggressively applied the masquerading ordinance to intimidate and discriminate against queer people. Arrests for crossdressing were common across the nation through the mid-1900s. The City‘s anti-masquerading ordinance was fortified by state laws that further criminalized homosexuality. Enacted in 1915, California State Penal Code 288a made oral sex a felony. Sodomy had been a felony in California since 1850. 

Nathan Hahn was arrested in 1940 for wearing female clothing and refused to wear the male clothing presented to him by detective Holt.