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LA dedicates historic monument to Chicana who was arrested for wearing men’s clothes

LA dedicates historic monument to Chicana who was arrested for wearing men’s clothes
Photo: Los Angeles LGBT Center

Nancy Valverde was openly a Chicana butch lesbian living during an era when not conforming to gender roles meant jail time. She was a barber, a mother to several adopted children, and an early gay rights activist. Now, she is the first lesbian to be honored with a public monument in Los Angeles.

From the time Valverde was 17, she was repeatedly arrested for wearing men’s clothes. She was the victim of many arrests under the “anti-masquerading” laws of the 1940s and 1950s, which allowed police officers to arrest or penalize people for wearing clothes that police deemed unsuited to their gender.

Valverde died in March of 2024. Shortly before her death, the city of Los Angeles renamed an intersection downtown to the Cooper Do-nuts/Nancy Valverde Square. The name honors both Valverde and a donut shop that was the site of a 1959 riot against anti-LGBTQ+ police harassment.

At the ceremony dedicating the square, Los Angeles police department deputy chief apologized for the LAPD’s attacks on queer people like Valverde. LAPD Deputy Chief Ruby Flores said, “This mistreatment of our citizens was wrong and should never have happened.”

Valverde was unable to attend the ceremony, but Marisol Sanchez, the resident services coordinator for the LGBTQ+ senior apartments where Valverde lived, said that Valverde’s reaction was, “I never thought I was going to get this, but it’s about time.”

In her early life, Valverde experienced hardship because of her identity as a butch lesbian and as a Chicana. Los Angeles was in the process of pushing out a neighborhood populated by Mexican-American families to build Dodgers Stadium. The LAPD’s then-police chief William H. Parker, a known racist, used police power to crack down on gay bars and any public displays of queerness.

Valverde said she didn’t learn the word “lesbian” until she went to jail. She told Gregorio Davila — the director of Nancy from East Side Clover, a documentary chronicling her life — “I just knew I was comfortable in pants, men’s attire.”

In a time when many lesbians hid their identity to avoid police harassment, Valverde openly fought against police. Historian Lillian Faderman said that Valverde once told her that when police officers would say, “I want to see you in a dress,” she would tell them, “Sit down and wait ’cause you’re gonna get tired.”

Her brave efforts were not applauded by many people in the gay community at the time.

“The gay community didn’t want me around,” Valverde told Davila, “They said I was too out. Everybody was passing for straight, and the only place they came out was at the bars. On the streets they wouldn’t talk with me … [afraid] I would make them guilty by association.”

Despite the arrests and discrimination she faced, Valverde had a successful career at a barbershop that was known as a safe haven for queer people. One man told Sanchez that getting his hair cut by Valverde was an affirming experience for him. “I knew she was different,” he said. “I knew she was a safe space, when I hadn’t even admitted to myself that I was a gay man.”

Valverde raised several adopted children and was always an active member of the Los Angeles queer community. She is immortalized in documentariesacademic researchessays, and a play by Raquel Gutiérrez called The Barber of East LA.

In Nancy from the East Side Clover, Valverde said about the discrimination that she faced, “They wanted me to be someone else. I could not be someone else. This is me.”

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