I was planning on including Jackie and Catherine in the Butch Lesbians of the 20s, 30s, and 40s Coloring Book and had already started my sketches. I was curious though. Why were these two jailbirds documented? Why did Jackie look so weary? Usually, unless the butch was famous, the photo would be anonymous and this one wasn’t. In almost every place that I saw the photo of the two in jail, it was noted that this was Jackie Bross and Catherine Barscz, Racine Police Station, Chicago, June 5, 1943. Some places noted that they’d been arrested for cross-dressing. I assumed that they were in jail because of a gay bar raid, but I was wrong. Last night I researched Jackie and Catherine, and discovered that Jackie was so well documented because she was responsible for getting the cross-dressing laws in Chicago changed in 1943.
Jackie Brass was a butch hero. Jackie was a 19-year-old part Cherokee butch woman who was arrested as she came home from her job as a machinist at a WWII defense plant. You may have seen the iconic photo of her and her friend Catherine in a Chicago jail cell, but I found a photo of Jackie in court. As I read Jackie’s history, I was moved to tears by her youth, pride determination, and bravery.
In court, Bross informed the judge that she chose to wear men’s clothing because it was “more comfortable than women’s clothes and handy for work…I wish I was a boy. I never did anything wrong. I just like to wear men’s clothes… [but] everyone knows I’m a woman.” She was sentenced to see a court psychiatrist for six months, Chicago’s cross-dressing code was revised, but harassment and arrests continued. The Chicago code regarding cross-dressing was not eliminated until 1978.