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HBO Max's 'Equal': What were 'Masquerade Law' and 'Three-Article Rule' used by cops to persecute trans community?

The masquerade law, more commonly known as the anti-masking law, was established in New York in 1845 and spread like wildfire across the country in the 19th century
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

'Equal' is the latest offering from HBO Max. The four-part docuseries focuses on the history of the LGBTQ+ movement, specifically, the people who are generally pushed to the sidelines of history and not often remembered. As far as television programs go, 'Equal' is one of the more comprehensive accounts of the movement's history, covering not just the famous Stonewall Riots, but also the movements that preceded it as well as the people who came before America started to see a revolution for the community.

Through the four episodes of 'Equal', viewers will get to see how the LGBTQ+ community -- especially the trans community -- had been targeted and harassed by the police and other law enforcement in the history of the country. Trans people were especially targeted and were often arrested on the basis of the antiquated masquerade law and the Three-Article Rule.

The masquerade law, more commonly known as the anti-masking law, was established in New York in 1845 and spread like wildfire across the country in the 19th century. It declared it a crime to have your "face painted, discolored, covered, or concealed, or [be] otherwise disguised… [while] in a road or public highway." The law was written to target rural farmers, who had taken to dressing like Native Americans to fight off tax collectors. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, it was more often used to target "gender inappropriateness" according to William N Eskridge, Jr in his book 'Gaylaw: Challenging the Apartheid of the Closet'.

The masquerade laws were used increasingly to arrest trans men and women such as Jack Starr in Montana in 1926 (played by Theo Germaine in the second episode of 'Equal'). These arrests became more and more common in the lead up to the Stonewall Riots and colloquially, the law became associated with the "Three-Article Rule" or the "Three Piece Law." According to this "rule," trans people had to have three articles of clothing that were associated with their birth-assigned gender to avoid getting arrested for cross-dressing. 

The problem, of course, is that this law never existed and according to author Hugh Ryan, accounts suggested that the police generally used old, often unrelated laws to target LGBT people throughout the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. Either the Three-Article law was an informal rule of thumb used by the police or a term used by the LGBT community as a way to easily warn each other. Ryan also writes that the "rule" was used as an excuse for street-level sexual assault and sexual humiliation.

Of course, during the first half of the 20th century, discontent against the police brutality was rising in the community and that culminated in the Stonewall Riots in 1969, at a time when the country was embroiled in protests -- either against the Vietnam War or for the civil rights movement. After the Stonewall Uprising, cross-dressing arrests reduced significantly and the "three-article rule" was quickly forgotten.

However, the masquerade law still exists and it was most recently used in 2011 during the Occupy Wall Street movement when the police arrested protestors wearing masks. Different states also have different versions of the rule that prohibit people from wearing masks in public.

'Equal' is available to stream on HBO Max from October 22.