SIR LADY JAVA
March 22, 2021
Translated by: Maria Galanopoulou
Sir Lady Java was an openly trans woman, a black performer, and a trailblazer, yet unsung, veteran of trans rights. The most important among the battles she fought is considered to be the fight for the abolition of Rule Number 9, which legitimized cross-dressing as an illegal action, thus depriving trans people and drag queens/kings of their income.
Born in New Orleans in 1943, Java came from a culturally broad cluster of Black, American, French, Spanish, and German ancestors. Feeling from a young age that she was a woman and not a man, she underwent gender transition with the support of her mother. Her nickname “Java” was a man’s exclamation in the sentence “Ooooh girl, you look like java baby, deep, dark, and delicious," when he saw her walking down the street. Right from a young age, Java started working in the nightclubs of New Orleans, with her mother staying awake every night, waiting to see if she had come back safe. After graduating from Riverside Highschool, she turned to millinery and fashion design.
Around 1965, at the age of 20, she decides to pursue a career in Los Angeles’ night life. Her exotic dances led to a full house in the clubs and the bars of the city. Apart from dancing, she was also into impersonations and singing. However, the popularity she earned, quickly turned her into a victim of the legislation that was promoting the gender binary, among other things. One of the first attempts to arrest her was the bust of 50 Los Angeles police officers in a club while she was working, on the pretext of the “three piece rule”, which mandated that a person be wearing at least three articles of clothing that correspond to the sex they were assigned at birth, otherwise they would be arrested for cross-dressing. Java masterfully eluded the charges by showing them her socks, her man's wristwatch, and her bowtie. In 1967, under Rule Number 9, it was said that "No entertainment shall be conducted in which any performer impersonates by means of costume or dress a person of the opposite sex" unless a "special permit [has been] issued by the LA Board of Police Commissioners."
At a time of endless police brutality, with illegal attacks on and arrests of gay and trans people, Java acknowledged the violation of trans rights, rallied the LGBT community by organizing marches and protests against the police authorities of Los Angeles, and she became a member of the American Civil Liberties Union with the aim of highlighting the unconstitutional nature of the law that deprives her of her income as an actress. Even though the legal battle ended in her defeat, since she herself was not a club owner to oppose the law, but a mere performer, her case drew the attention of the whole American nation through the publications of African-American and Queer groups.
According to her, “The story being told is so important, and we need to hear it." Despite her influence on the media, and while she herself claimed to live as a woman 24 hours a day, the press repeatedly referred to her as a man. Java’s activist struggle continued unwavering, just like her return to working as a performer after Rule Number 9 was declared invalid. Of course, apart from being a performer, Java also pursued her participation in onscreen films, such as The Human Tornado, a sequel of the movie Dolemite, while she also defected to a tour across the entire America, limiting, however, her performances to the heterosexual and cisgender audience. And in 2020, Hailey Sahar, an actress in the Pose series, announced that she will star in Java’s autobiographical film, thus writing one more page of the LGBTQIA+ community’s uncharted history.