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The 1885 arrest of Cecelia Regina Gonzaga

After a police officer arrested Gonzaga, assigned a male at birth, for wearing women’s clothes, the officer took her into custody and questioned her at the Ramsey County Courthouse.

North-facing view of the intersection of Sixth and Minnesota Streets, St. Paul.
North-facing view of the intersection of Sixth and Minnesota Streets, St. Paul.
Photograph by A. F. Raymond, 1890

According to her own account, Cecelia Regina Gonzaga was born in Louisiana in about 1855 and assigned a male gender. The surname she later chose for herself, associated with the Italian saint, Aloysius de Gonzaga, suggests that she came from a Catholic background (“Cecelia” and “Regina” are also common Catholic names). As a young adult she traveled to Jamaica to work as a missionary under the guidance of a priest.

In the 1870s or early 1880s, Gonzaga lived in St. Louis, Missouri. Her gender presentation during this period is unclear, but later patterns suggest that she presented herself alternately as a man and a woman. By July 1885, she had moved 600 miles up the Mississippi River to St. Paul, where she lived first at 81 Sixth St. with Christin Sanders (a widowed Black mother of two from Missouri) and then with a Mrs. Woods at 30 Cedar St..

During her first weeks in the city, Gonzaga dressed as a man. Then, on Aug. 20, she put on a slate-blue dress, drab cotton gloves, a pearl brooch and a straw hat and set out for a walk in downtown St. Paul. She carried a crocodile-skin bag. By the time she reached the intersection of Sixth and Robert Streets, other pedestrians had pointed her out to a police officer working his beat around the corner, at the intersection of Fifth and Minnesota. The officer, Jeremiah J. Sullivan, intercepted Gonzaga, charged her with impersonating a woman, and took her to the Ramsey County Courthouse.

At the courthouse, police officers interrogated Gonzaga while two newspaper reporters watched. She strenuously defended herself, saying, “I have always earned an honest living, although I have not found life as bright as most people … I have always found it easier making a living doing women’s work than men’s.” She explained that when she dressed as a man she went by the name C. C. Tyler, but in her current clothes she was Cecelia Regina Gonzaga. After an examination, police declared her to be, in the words of one of the reporters, “a hermaphrodite of the most pronounced character.”

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Nineteenth-century writers used the (often offensive) word “hermaphrodite” to describe a broad range of people. Some of them would identify today as intersex — that is, outside the norm in their genes, gonads, hormones or genitalia. Others would call themselves transgender, nonbinary, gender fluid, or drag queens. It’s difficult to match Gonzaga to any one of these identities, both because these terms solidified after 1885 and because there is no clear evidence showing how Gonzaga thought of herself. Her story, however, is a historical example of gender variance: non-conformity in some facet of gender identity, make-up, or expression.

Gender-variant Black people like Gonzaga were doubly vulnerable to surveillance in the late nineteenth century. During the 1880s, cities across the U.S. adopted ordinances that made dressing as the “opposite” gender an arrestable offense. At the same time, the Jim Crow era of discrimination against Blacks in the South accelerated, and even in Northern states, police viewed Black people who took up public space with suspicion. Often, they watched them more closely than their white counterparts. When gender-variant Blacks looked for jobs and homes in cities they put themselves at risk for police abuse twice over — first by being Black and second by being gender non-conforming.

The St. Paul Globe and Minneapolis Tribune reporters who described Gonzaga’s arrest did not record any abuse. Because custom entitled people nontraditional genitalia in the 1880s to wear the clothes of women or men, as they chose, identifying Gonzaga as what today would be considered gender-fluid was enough for the St. Paul police. They released her from custody after her examination on the condition that she dress as either a man or a woman, but not both.

Gonzaga left the courthouse, but she spent only one more night in St. Paul. On Aug. 21, she boarded a southbound train and returned to St. Louis.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.