Nancy Valverde (1932 – present) is a barber, as well as a notable lesbian and gender-nonconformist. She was repeatedly charged and incarcerated in Lincoln Heights Jail for “masquerading.” Her story is one of challenging bias and injustice; and eventually winning. Her life has been the subject of much interest by queer historians in recent years, and through their documentation she has become well-known as a butch lesbian icon. Though to many on the Los Angeles eastside, she is simply known as “Nancy from Eastside Clover.”
Today I want us to take a look at the life and celebrate the life of a very special queer hero from the barrio.
The Early Life of Nancy Valverde
Nancy was born in the southern New Mexico town of Deming, and when she was 9 years old her father brought her to Lincoln Heights, East Los Angeles.
When asked about her childhood and school age years, she would talk about the awkwardness of having all the girls chattering about the cute boys and asking for her fawning input, but that she just ended up feeling alienated and like an outsider. And of the reactions she got from people for being different.
Though her formal education was really short. She didn’t really have much schooling except for grammar school. As she had gone to work in the fields with her family by the time she was 11 years old, seasonally picking Apricots in Santa Paula and cotton in Tulare County up near Bakersfield.
And by 13 years old, she was already working in a local neighborhood restaurant in Lincoln Heights, helping the matron of the kitchen. When the restaurant was sold by the man who owned the building, it was sold to Mexican Americans who started a bakery there. Nancy would continue on working for them for the next few years, delivering pastries all over Los Angeles. Though keep in mind, this was years before she had a driver’s license. Driving her baked loaves and pan dulce up to the once thriving Mexican enclave of Chavez Ravine, where Dodger Stadium sits today. Where later in life she would also witness a woman being dragged from her home, as it was demolished and she was left homeless.
A lot of the experience of discrimination begin as a Mexican American, feeling like a second-class citizen. Which quite naturally resulted in producing in her a certain sense of rebellion. Though nothing seemed to be more of a rebel statement at the time than her gender non-conformity, wearing pants and short hair. She began to realize she was different at the age of 15, all the while thinking of herself as growing into being comfortable in her own skin.
Nancy’s Arrest for Gender Nonconformity, the Crime of “Masquerading.”
In 1948, Nancy Valverde was just 17 years old when she was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department. She was charged with the crime of masquerading, an old law on the books which prohibited men and women from wearing gender-nonconforming clothing. The authorities pointed to her short hair and the zipper fly of her pants as evidence, which got her sentence to three months in jail. A criminal charge that got her kicked out of her mother’s house.
And that was just the beginning of her persecution by the Los Angeles Police Department over several years. She often ended up in the lock-up for lesbian women known as the Daddy Tank at Lincoln Heights Jail.
Lincoln Heights jail had mostly become notorious for its “Drunk Tank” when it opened in 1930. And then through the next couple decades still, drunks would be locked up for 30 to 90 days, then released – often to inevitable destitution on skid row – and then picked-up against and it starting all over again.
In the same manner they had a gay men’s section of the jail called the “Fruit Tank,” as well. People would be held for some time, released and then before long picked-up again by harassing police.
Nancy would be dragged in to jail repeatedly. And be placed in the lesbian lock-up.
Sometimes she was even held in the jail without being officially booked, so at times her friends could not find her for days and sometimes weeks.
Nancy insists that the hostility shown to her was because the authorities were against lesbians. Though she makes the point of addressing that as well when talking of her incarceration:
“I was a juvenile. I wasn’t supposed to be there with those older women. Of course, I didn’t mind it,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t even know the word ‘lesbian.’ The first time I heard it was in jail.”
All the while Nancy contended that the clothes she wore was a matter of comfort, while working to financially support herself. The jail would seem to have a revolving door for Nancy, a cycle she tried hard to break out of.
In 1951 she visited the Los Angeles County Law Library in hopes of finding some legal defense. In her research she was able to find rulings from 1950 that stated that women wearing men’s clothing was not actually a crime in Los Angeles. She informed her lawyer and was able to use this in her defense. And so eventually the police stopped arresting her.
Even though the LAPD stopped incarcerating her, the harassment didn’t stop. The beat policemen were known to have made a habit of knocking loudly with their nightstick on the window of her Brooklyn Ave barber shop, to intimidate her and scare away customers.
Though Nancy worked many jobs to make ends meet, her main occupation was as a barber. Though it is important to note that like many of the situations in her life, getting her barbers license was also came with challenges. She found herself being unable to be admitted to barber school because her lack of education. Though eventually she was able to overcome this when a man came up to her and informed her that she could proceed to getting her barbers license if she could pass a basic IQ test. Which she did, and was issued her barbering license. However, like much of her life, she was treated unequally by the other barbers who were all male. And was paid less than the other barbers, because she was a woman.
On top of all this, she also the target of harassment from inside the community, from the cholos and gang members who also went after her for being a lesbian. Even though she was well liked and accepted in the local bars by those who got to know her, long before there were any gays bars around here she would frequent the local watering holes, and be acknowledged just as “Nancy from Eastside Clover,” simply as their friend from the barrio.
Career, Family Life and Retirement
She also worked in the eastside as a bartender, as well as doing odd jobs and home repair work around town. Not to just support herself, but also a family.
In 2013 she spoke about this time in her life to Advocate Magazine, in a segment titled, “9 Tales of Young Love and Old Memories: Nine residents of Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing share stories of love from the past and present.” It was recounted:
One day, she ran into a woman named Mary Sanchez, whom she had met before at a bar with mutual friends. By chance, Sanchez was moving her belongings out of her apartment, and Valverde offered to assist her.
“The next day, my back was shot,” Valverde says. “Destiny. I believe in that — the invisible forces.”
Valverde stayed in bed while Sanchez, who was pregnant at the time, cared for her. She told Valverde about the troubles she had been having with her boyfriend. By the time Valverde’s health improved, Sanchez had ended the relationship, prompting Valverde to offer to help support her and her unborn child.
“I said, ‘I’m not lazy, I work,'” she remembers telling Sanchez. “And she looked at me really sad, as if she’d heard that line before.”
Already two weeks behind on the rent (a total that, at the time, amounted to $14), Sanchez managed to convince her landlord to let her become the building’s manager. They were able to stay together in the apartment.
Valverde and Sanchez became a couple and sustained their relationship for 25 years. However, they broke up after Sanchez’s child grew to become an adult suffering from drug addiction, causing a rift between the pair.
“I couldn’t see myself putting up with an addict for the rest of my life,” says Valverde, sadly. “And I walked out. I miss her every day of my life.”
Throughout her lifetime, Valverde helped raise four children of women she loved. She raised one child, Salvatore, for six years, before his birth mother, who initially rejected the baby, returned to take him away.
“They said lesbians could not raise kids,” Valverde says.
But 10 years ago, Salvatore tracked down Valverde, and the two reunited. Valverde keeps a picture of him and his wife in her apartment, along with a photograph that the pair took together when he found her as an adult.
After a long career as a barber and laborer, she retired to assisted living. And is now a resident of the 104-unit Triangle Square senior housing facility in Hollywood, created by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.
“This is the best place that I’ve lived in,” Valverde says of Triangle Square. “People know what you’re about.”
Which is really something special. After a long life of struggling for her sense of place up against so many societal prejudices which stood against her. Since her childhood she had to work hard to get by, she had to contend with the rejection of family, and then even had to contend with the gangs that also terrorized her for being a lesbian. Now she has a safe place in this world.
The Legacy of Nancy Valverde
After she moved to Triangle Square she was found by lesbian historians, journals and playwrights. And based on their documentation of her life story in recent years she has become regarded as a Mexican American butch icon by those who admire her.
She inspired Raquel Gutiérrez of the Butchlalis de Panochtitlan, who wrote The Barber of East L.A. based on her life.
The life of Nancy Valverde is also documented and featured in the documentaries On These Shoulders We Stand and Nancy from East Side Clover; and in the books Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, and Lavender Los Angeles.
Nancy Valverde has a tremendous life story. Her life experience is one that is both reflective of a terrible history of homophobia and gender politics in the 20th century. And the experience that she suffered through was something that was not uncommon in other big cities, but it was more complicated here due to the conditions and culture of Los Angeles at the time.
Now let us keep in mind that Nancy is not transgender, she is a butch lesbian. She was not trying to pass as a man, meaning she was not trying to “masqerade.” She even had people testify in her defense that they knew she was a woman and that she was certainly not trying to fool anyone either. That is just who she was and who they knew her to be.
Most white, queer and transgender scholars state that her attire would hardly be noticed today. And note that even at that time it might have likely gone unnoticed in many other big cities. However, it must be stated that Los Angeles was especially intolerant in respect to gender non-conformity and any attire that broke with white cultural norms; all this coming to a head during this height of World War II.
In addition to that Los Angeles, unlike some other cities, would eventually target both male and female cross dressers. This was something of a particular obsession for mayor Fletcher Bowron, who was mayor of Los Angeles from 1938 to 1953. He was known to have a specific abhorrence for women in pants. In 1942 he declared to the city council that he loathed “to see masculine women much more than feminine traits in men.”
Now keep in mind that is all going on during the middle of World War II, as women are going to work in local industrial jobs as the men went off to war, as they work their asses off in the factories to help support the war effort. Nonetheless he looked at these women in their practical work attire as a desecration of gender and womanliness.
While Bowron was alarmed that he could not prevent this of women in defense factories, he contended with his council members that this needed to be stood against and banned in City Hall. In that year of 1942, the city council was urged by him to pass a regulation that prevented women employees from wearing pants at City Hall.
In 1950 legal precedent began to offer some level of defense, that wasn’t present before the war. However, in the post-war years and going into the 1950s, still this era came with increasing examples of harsh treatment as women refused to return to the traditional gender roles they had emerged from.
And certainly, as a Mexican American Nancy Valverde also suffered even more persecution. In an era in which there was increased targeting of Latinos, who had also stretched their legs in society during these years and then ultimately refused to be pushed back into their subjugated roles again as well. And who were likewise often seen as challenging all that with their attire as well.
We will discuss this more in the future as we further explore the history of the repeated criminalization of minorities and non-conformists at the Lincoln Heights Jail, in upcoming blog entries. Stay tuned!