Men dressed as women! At the Mummers Parade? Can you believe it?
Last month, parade officials announced that ten self-described “Drag Queens” would accompany string bands from Washington Avenue to City Hall on New Year’s Day. They’ll also perform at the Convention Center, between acts of the Fancy Brigades.
Philadelphians greeted the news with a collective yawn, because cross-dressing has long been a staple of Mummery. Starting in the 1920s, female-attired “wenches” paraded down Broad Street paired with tuxedo-clad “dudes.” And until the 1970s, when women were finally allowed to participate in the parade, the Comic Division had a separate category for female impersonators.
But the wenches and dudes also dressed up in blackface, adding an ugly tinge of bigotry that we should never forget. And we should also remember that real transvestites—as opposed to people who cross-dress for the day—have likewise faced extraordinary prejudice across our history, which makes the Mummers’ embrace of them all the more remarkable.
To white Mummers, blackface was a harmless act of buffoonery: why was it worse to dress up as an African-American than as a woman? The answer lay in our nation’s ugly racial history, where blackface was associated with stereotypes of African-Americans as child-like, happy-go-lucky simpletons.
That’s why the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress of Racial Equality petitioned the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to bar blackface from the Mummers Parade in December of 1963. In response, the Mummers threatened to hold the parade privately in Philadelphia Stadium.
Trying to placate both sides, the court barred blackface from Broad Street but allowed it on other parts of the parade route. Yet even a partial ban was too much for some Mummers, who staged a civil-rights-style “sit-in” to protest the new blackface restrictions. Others wore dark blue makeup on Broad Street but pointedly reapplied blackface when they marched through the African-American community below South Street.”The Democrats own Broad Street; we own Second Street,” the Mummers taunted.
The last comment spoke to the city’s increasing political polarization around questions of race: blacks and their white civil-rights allies clustered in the Democratic Party, while opponents drifted towards the Republicans. Their standardbearer was Frank Rizzo, who became a Democrat to run for mayor but came back to the GOP after that.
As a police official in the 1950s and 1960s, Rizzo also spearheaded the harassment of gays and, yes, transvestites. When he was captain of Center City’s precinct, Rizzo ordered a 1959 raid on a gay coffee shop on Sansom Street where—according to an undercover policewoman—one man was “dressed as a woman.”
Not all gays were transvestites, of course, or vice versa. Coined in the early 1900s by the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, the term transvestite derives from trans (“across”) and vestis (“dress”); it refers to clothing, not to sexual orientation per se. Examining 17 transvestites, Hirschfeld found that most of them were heterosexual.
But Germany and France both made in illegal to cross-dress in public. In several notorious cases, Hirschfeld found, women wearing female clothes were arrested when they were mistaken for male cross-dressers.
In the United States, likewise, law enforcement officials harassed and arrested transvestites. A California man dressed as a woman served six months’ probation in the 1950s because his driver’s license said “male.” And in the 1960s, an airline pilot lost his job and pension when he was arrested for cross-dressing.
Ironically, the persecution of transvestites galvanized them as a political force. After police raided a cross-dressers’ bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district in 1966, for example, customers rioted. Transvestites also played a key role in New York’s now-famous Stonewall Riot of 1969, which began when lesbian cross-dressers refused to go to the bathroom with female officers who sought to”verify” their gender.
But even today, in the age of “LGBT,” many of us remain much more comfortable with the LGB (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual) than with the T (Transgendered). The American Psychological Association still labels transvestitism as a disorder, even though it dropped that designation for homosexuals long ago. And when Mummers officials announced that drag queens would march in this year’s parade, they received several dozen angry calls from string-band members.
But they also turned a deaf ear to the complaints, striking another welcome blow against bigotry. The first one came in 1974, when the Fancy Brigades barred blackface once and for all. Now the parade is courageously opening its arms to transvestites, who dress up as an identity and not just as a gaffe. And if you’ve got a problem with that, the joke is on you.
Jonathan Zimmermanteaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).