(Text and photos by Michail Takach, for an historical panel created by this project in 2019. The panel is on loan to the 'This Is It' bar in downtown Milwaukee.)
We cannot imagine the bravery required to live an authentic transgender life in 1890s Milwaukee. We salute the few known transgender elders who attempted to be their best selves in a cruel world. They were truly pioneers.
Despite the popularity of female impersonator shows in the vaudeville era, cross-dressing in real life was strictly forbidden.
Millie Brown found out the hard way on August 29, 1899. Arrested on charges of "acting queer" outside the Alhambra Theater on 4th and Wisconsin, Brown (aka Harry/Harriet Brown aka Harry Hynes) was ordered to appear before a curious police court the next morning.
"It was a very queer mixture. The man has some very feminine ways," wrote the Milwaukee Journal. "He was clad in female attire with the exception of the wig. He held a handkerchief just as a girl does; he smoothed down her skirt like a girl; and when walking, held it up just like a girl does. He carried a purse and wore a straw hat trimmed with ribbons."
"But the features were masculine and unattractive. The hands were large and brawny, the gait was masculine and there was a fuzz of whiskers on the face. The fact the boy neglected to shave yesterday is what led to the arrest."
After hours of mockery and misgendering, Millie finally admitted she was born Harry Hynes from Edgerton, Wisconsin. After he was unable to find work as a man for two years, he chose to live his life as a woman, and worked as a maid servant at a house on 8th and St. Paul. His employer only knew him as a woman, and he begged that the police not reveal his true sex. As a man, he was rejected by one job after another for being too feminine, but now he stood to lose a job for being a man.
Witnesses revealed that Hynes was one of several vaudeville performers rumored to be "masquerading" as real women in everyday life. The police suspected that they were planning an organized crime spree, using the female gender as a disguise– although there was no evidence or basis for this accusation, and Hynes had no previous criminal record. None of his so-called conspirators were ever captured.
"I have always believed myself a woman at heart," he told the prison matron at his inspection, "no matter what you see below my dress. No court can change that."
Hynes threatened to smash the camera and lick the police when they tried to photograph him. "You fellows are making a monkey of me," he shouted angrily," and I won’t stand for it."
Despite zero evidence of a cross-dressing crime spree, Harry Hynes was sentenced to 60 days at the House of Correction for masquerading as a woman. Millie Brown was never seen nor heard from again.
Credits: Web site concept, design and most content by Don Schwamb
Photos and text on this page by Michail Takach
Last updated: May-2021.
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