Oakland’s at large city councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan is ebullient. Just a few weeks after launching her “exploratory committee” for a mayoral bid this November, she’s already using Obama-speak. “The big picture point is if we want change, we have to be willing to make change,” Kaplan said during an interview Wednesday evening. It was 7 p.m., rush-hour traffic had already died down, and most regular 9-to-5-ers were already home for the day. Kaplan was driving across town to a meeting. These days, she works sun-up to sun-down, said the councilwoman’s administrative director Chris Miley. She never tires.
And she deploys the term “change” with a notable absence of self-irony. In the last few months, Kaplan has consolidated her reputation for just that. Not only is the first out lesbian on Oakland’s City Council; she’s also an exposer and reformer of retrograde laws. A few months ago, she and Nancy Nadel launched a campaign to fix Oakland’s outdated cabaret ordinance, which had been around since the Vaudeville era. Just last week Kaplan unveiled another law, Dress Code 0.08.080, which had been on the books since 1879. That was the year that Oakland legislators thought it necessary to prohibit anyone from donning attire of the opposite sex.
Apparently, cross-dressing has been illegal in Oakland for 131 years, and no one ever noticed.
Kaplan said she discovered the law a few months ago, while combing the municipal code for something else. She said the words “immoral dress code” jumped out at her right away. “The moment I saw it, I thought it was pretty striking,” she said. “Obviously something we had to get rid of.” She wrote an amendment to repeal the code, which went before committee last Tuesday, April 27, and received unanimous approval. It was expected to pass handily at last night’s city council meeting,
Why the dress code went unchallenged for so many years is a matter of debate. But sometimes it just takes a new set of eyes to look at something, Kaplan said. It could also be a matter of perspective. “In this particular case there’s also the fact that the immoral dress code, historically, was pretty much used exclusively for the purpose of harassing LGBT people,” she explained. “It’s not like a straight man wearing a dress on Halloween was gonna be arrested.”
In fact, the whole history of these codes is largely connected with anti-gay prejudice. According to Stephanie McLeod, who works as an intern in Kaplan’s office, the 1879 Oakland law stemmed from a larger sense of xenophobia that pervaded the East Bay during the mid-19th century. Oakland had just witnessed a huge population boom, resulting in part from the Gold Rush and the Transcontinental Railroad, and later, from the birth of a healthy industrial sector. McLeod theorizes that the dress code was just one in a spate of “social norms” designed to control the new urban communities. “There were a lot of folks in urban cities that were cross-dressing,” she said. “There were huge amounts of single men who were leaving the Midwest … coming to city, and realizing ‘I’m here, and no one really knows that.'”
It goes even deeper than that, Kaplan said. She points to a famous 1969 melee at the Stonewall Inn, in New York. Police raided the bar, hitting patrons on the head with billy clubs, and arresting all the men who were dressed as women. The resulting outcry led to a series of riots, which became the genesis of the gay liberation movement. “The police were asked, ‘What was the law here that was at issue?'” Kaplan said. “And the police said, ‘The dress code.’ New York at that time had the same law on the books that we’re getting rid of in Oakland now. That was the justification given by the people who were engaged in anti-gay violence of why they were doing what they were doing.”
It’s a safe bet that most members of Oakland City Council know the history of Stonewall. But it might not be integral to their experience, or their frame of reference. “It’s entirely possible that someone … might see a line like that on the books and not think it really mattered,” Kaplan said. “And, you know, not think it was worth it to bother to do the work to take it off the books. And I think maybe it stood out more to me because of my own experience and my own awareness of that history. Those laws essentially exist to make it easier to brutalize gay people.”
Kaplan is Oakland City Council’s first “out” lesbian and second out gay councilmember; the first was Danny Wan, who took John Russo‘s seat in 2000. Most likely she’ll be Oakland’s first major mayoral candidate who is openly gay. And she’s a vociferous champion for the LGBT community in the East Bay, which is said to rival that of San Francisco in population density. (It could provide Kaplan with a significant voting pool in November.) In March of 2009 Kaplan reinstituted a weekly LGBT roundtable that Wan had launched during his term. When he left in 2004, the meetings stopped, she said.
Since Kaplan came on board, Oakland is suddenly on the verge of being inundated with gay infrastructure. Kaplan’s new pet project is an LGBT community center, which is just in its initial planning stage. She enlisted the help of policy analyst Ada Chan to survey other such centers throughout the country, to look for viable models. She and Chan also plan to conduct a “needs assessment” survey of the LGBT community in Oakland, to see how the community center could best be put to use. Kaplan also is behind a gay pride celebration planned for September 5 in downtown Oakland. If it succeeds, Oakland Pride could earn the city some street cred — or at least change its self-concept.
Of course Kaplan presents the LGBT stuff as part of a much larger reform agenda, which includes updates to the zoning code, a swifter city permitting process, and more efficient use of technology. She also says that creating a stronger LGBT community in Oakland isn’t just about pride or identity politics — it’s related to economic revitalization, and the perennial problem of money leaving town. “The fact that LGBT people in Oakland have to leave Oakland and spend our money in San Francisco. … To me, that’s about the LGBT community, but it’s also much bigger than that.”