Thursday, December 09, 2010

Sir Lady Java- Trans Civil Rights Warrior

"It's got to stop somewhere, and it won't unless somebody steps forward and takes a stand.  I guess that's me.  
Sir Lady Java,  October 21, 1967  

I briefly did an intro piece on the interesting life of Sir Lady Java, who if you peruse the electronic pages of the JET magazine Google archives you will see more than a few stories and pictures of in 60's and 70's era JET magazine articles.

The New Orleans born and Los Angeles based Sir Lady Java was a popular illusionist back in the day.  She was billed as the 'Prettiest Man on Earth' for her natural 38-24-38 curves.

During her heyday her act drew adoring fans and was known by and sometimes entertained many of the popular California based African-American celebrities of the day.    JET magazine covered a 1978 Los Angeles birthday party for her idol Lena Horne she performed at.

But did you know that Sir Lady Java was also a trans civil rights warrior?.

Like many cities back in the day Los Angeles had an odious anti-crossdressing regulation on the books they called Rule Number 9.  It made it illegal for performers to 'impersonate by means of costume or dress a member of the opposite sex' unless you had a special permit issued by the LA Board of Police Commissioners.    Most illusionists to avoid drama with the police law would perform either wearing a tie, male trousers or a male shirt in order to avoid running afoul of LAPD officers just itching to enforce it and start the process of piling up violations on a club to get its license yanked.

This rule existed despite a California Supreme Court ruling that struck down the state anti-crossdressing statute several years before that made crossdressing legal..

The 60's were a more paranoid and hostile time in terms of enforcing the gender binary, and the police in the various cities that had these ordinances on the books used them and other means such as dress codes, liquor licensing and prohibitions against same gender people dancing to harass people they deemed as 'deviants'.

Of course you know back in the day the 'deviants' category for the 'law and order' gender stormtroopers included TBLG people.

As part of another 'hate on GLBT peeps' law enforcement crackdown, The LAPD decided to target the bars where illusionists worked since they were one of the few places in LA where TBLG community members could openly congregate.   

Their number one target?   The shows featuring Sir Lady Java. .

Lady Java had been working in the Los Angeles area for two years at this point with an act that combined comedy skits, interpretive dancing and a fashion show that featured the leading women of the era.

The story starts in the early fall of 1967.  She'd been hired by the Redd Foxx Club (yes, that Redd Foxx)  to do an ultimately successful two week run.   At the end of it she was asked by management to do another two week run.

LAPD officers showed up at the bar on LaCienega Blvd and informed the principal owner of the club that if Lady Java appeared on the Redd Foxx club stage they would lose their license.   Of course, that not so subtle threat by the LAPD had the desired effect of striking fear in other club owners who hosted FI shows.

What they didn't count on was that Lady Java would fight back.

The LA po-po's were not only using Rule Number 9 to mess with the Los Angeles GLBT community, they were also messing with Lady Java's civil rights and her ability to get paid.    The strategy that other illusionists used to avoid entanglements with the LA po-po's wouldn't work for her. .

To add insult to the situation she found herself in,  she was issued a Police Commission 'special permit' to do a charity benefit show at the Cocoanut Grove.while on her forced downtime from her Redd Foxx club gig

And as we Texans and other folks in the Gulf Coast region already know, never piss off a woman from Louisiana.

Lady Java began to fight the injustice.   Since the ACLU was already immersed in civil rights legal work, they decided to get involved with this case and fight Rule Number 9 as well along with their trans poster girl.   .  

ACLU attorney Jean Martin took on the case and the organization began the process of prepping for a legal battle to challenge the legality of  Rule Number 9.    Lady Java kept up the pressure by initiating a highly publicized October 21 rally which featured 25 people picketing outside the Redd Foxx Club.    The protest got mentioned in the LA Advocate and the November 16, 1967 issue of JET magazine.

 "'The law is depriving me of my livelihood. I feel it's unconstitutional,' she's quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Advocate as she passed out the signs to the people helping her with her protest.

Unfortunately, Lady Java's effort to legally challenge Rule Number 9 hit a roadblock.   It was discovered that only the Redd Foxx club owner could file the lawsuit.   Java and Martin tried in vain for several months to find a club owner brave enough to tackle the LA Police Commission over Rule Number 9 but none stepped up to do so.    

Java's and the ACLU's efforts to take down LA's Rule Number 9 weren't in vain, and the blow that eventually struck down Rule Number 9 came from an unexpected and unrelated quarter.

In early 1969 a theater owner named Burton was being prosecuted for violating another commission rule that required the purchase of a license to show movies.   As part of his defense, Burton challenged the regulation by pointing out that an administrative official could approve or deny permits based on wide and shifting interpretations of the code.   He also pointed out that such a system was vulnerable to abuse.

The California Supreme Court agreed and struck down the movie license rule on the basis that it violated the First Amendment of the Constitution.    The LAPD Police Commission saw the handwriting on the wall and quietly notified the bars that did drag shows  that full drag was no longer illegal and revised its regulations accordingly.

While the endgame didn't play out exactly like Lady Java, Jean Martin and the ACLU envisioned it, the result was the same and Rule Number 9 was no more.

Over the next decade similar efforts to eliminate anti-crossdressing laws in various cities would gain momentum and meet with success.

But for transpeople in Los Angeles, they owe the eventual demise of the odious Rule Number 9 and their ability to perform in local clubs without police harassment to an African-American transwoman and trans rights warrior from Louisiana named Sir Lady Java

TransGriot Note:  Major thanks to trans historian Katrina Rose for sending me some docs and answering some questions I had that led to shedding some more light on the role Lady Java played in taking down Rule Number 9. 

1 comment:

tonacity said...

LOVE THIS ARTICLE!!! Very informative and inspiring thank you for doing the research and sharing her story!