Trans pioneer Sir Lady Java fought LAPD discrimination in 1967

Almost half a century before “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Pose,” Sir Lady Java was a pioneering transgender activist and entertainer who fought against a Los Angeles law that restricted drag performance.

She also spoke truth to power by challenging the Los Angeles Police Department and the city.

Also, as a Black gender non-conforming woman, she witnessed a point in history – The intersection of discriminatory law enforcement tactics targeting Black and brown as well as queer communities in Los Angeles in the 1960s.

Sir Lady Java was a dancer, singer, and comedian, who worked with Sammy Davis Jr. and Richard Pryor, among other people.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Sir Lady Java was a drag performer and waitress in 1960s Los Angeles.

But the Los Angeles Police Department put an end to her career.

Passed in 1958, the city’s notorious ordinance Rule #9 said bar owners couldn’t hire anyone who performed as the opposite sex to the one they were assigned at birth.

For Sir Lady Java, the impacts of the law hit a fever pitch in 1967 at the Redd Foxx, a Black-owned nightclub that was named for its owner, renowned stand-up comedian and actor John Elroy Sanford, who also was known as Redd  Foxx.

Sanford applied for a performance permit for Sir Lady Java, but the LAPD denied it.

Later, she protested at the Redd Foxx, arguing for her right to work.

Her activism was historic because she was the first person to not only protest the law, but also challenge it.

The ACLU sued Los Angeles on her behalf, but the court refused to hear her case because only bar or club owners could file a lawsuit.

The ACLU couldn’t find a bar owner willing to sue the city, and Sir Lady Java lost her case. 

Her protest did raise awareness and visibility about the issue.

Two years later, the ordinance was overturned in a separate lawsuit.

With the law overturned, Sir Lady Java returned to the stage and continued performing in LA nightclubs in the 1970s and early 1980s.

In 2022, her trailblazing efforts were recognized; the 79-year-old was the community grand marshal in the LA Pride Parade.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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