How The State Legislated Against The LGBT Community

Michael Bronski,

Release Date
October 11, 2016


Free Speech

If a woman walked down the street in the 1950’s wearing men’s shoes, pants, a fedora, and a wristwatch, she could be arrested, fined, or even put in jail.
Why? Because her attire violated “Three-Piece Laws,” which in many states forbade men and women from wearing more than three articles of clothing associated with the opposite sex.
Professor Michael Bronski explains the history behind these laws and others which aimed to punish the LGBT community in our new video.

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Freedom of expression has to be the freedom to express yourself through dress, through department, through speech, through public activity, the way that you want to. The notion that you have to not be appropriate to that gender is really about a few people, but people should have a right to do it. People should have the right to act, look, and dress whichever way that they want to.
My name’s Michael Bronski. I’m Professor of the Practice of Activism and Media at Harvard University. Many states, and George Chauncey writes about this very well in his book “Gay New York” about New York City, had laws that were called the Three-Piece Laws. Which simply said that any man or woman, as defined as man or woman under the law in the most traditional ways, were forbidden to wear more than three articles of clothing or accessories that belonged to the so-called opposite sex.
What it would mean is that, if a lesbian, say in the ’50s or really early ’60s, was wearing sensible men’s shoes, a pair of pants, that could have been women’s pants, not even men’s pants, but they were pants, they were not a dress. A men’s tailored shirt, and say a man’s fedora, or a men’s wristwatch, which would bring her up to four pieces of masculine clothing, she could be arrested. She could be fined. She could even be put in jail for a period of time.
There’s a law in New York State, other states have it, where you could not serve an open homosexual a drink. These came out of prohibition to essentially crackdown on gay bars, where presumably everybody in the bar would be openly homosexual. There were laws that are targeted at gay and lesbian people, and I think that the Three-Piece Law was totally aimed at gay men and at lesbians. These laws came out of social sentiment that you shouldn’t do this. The laws actually emerge from social conditions. Any social justice or civil rights movement has to deal with the law.
There are so many laws that need to be changed. It’s not a surprise that people become overly litigious. People become overly focused on changing laws. People set goals, either big goals or small goals, based upon the law. This is all really important. I think that on some level if we’re looking at the sanctity of the human being connected to the first amendment, but also going beyond that, looking at a notion of how we can respect people. That changing hearts and minds ultimately will do more than changing the law. Changing hearts and minds will actually change the laws that are bad.