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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #103a Sears 2015 - Arresting Dress: Cross-Dresing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Introductiion)

Full citation: 

Sears, Clare. 2015. Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-5758-2

Publication summary: 

A study of the intersections of gender and race.

Introduction: Not Belonging

* * *

In the second half of the 19th century, a number of U.S. cities instituted laws against cross-dressing. Past studies have tended to investigate this topic from a context of gender transgression or sexuality, seeking to claim that piece of history variously for gays and lesbians or for transgender people, or simply for gender non-conformists in general.

Sears takes a different approach, setting the laws in the context of a general movement for the law (and dominant social groups) to take control of defining acceptable public presence of various types. The anti-cross-dressing laws typically were grouped with “public nuisance” laws, and their enforcement and interpretation intersected in complicated ways with issues of race, immigration, class, and the policing of social categories in general, in addition to the surface issues of gender and sexuality.

This study looks specifically at the context of anti-cross-dressing laws in San Francisco, where the political and ethnic context of the creation of the state of California, the skewed demographics created by the gold rush, and the anxieties around Asian--and particularly Chinese--immigrants had an intensifying effect on the dynamics of cross-dressing laws.

The introduction reviews the historic context of California, and particularly San Francisco, leading up to the implementation of the law in 1863. There is a brief survey of types of gender transgressive behavior typical of the mid 19th century in the West. Sears lays out the theoretical underpinnings of her study, focusing on how the law operated, not simply by prohibiting specific actions, but as part of a larger context of defining, creating, and policing normative gender boundaries and categories. These boundaries were then used to define entire groups of people as “not belonging” in the public sphere.

While Sears is operating within a fairly complex theoretical framework, the prose is reasonably accessible and the topic is fascinating enough to draw even the non-technical reader in. The final part of the introduction lays out the nature of her source material (public archives) and notes the gaps (especially due to destruction of many records during the 1906 earthquake and fire) and the blind spots (such as the influence of ethnicity on public interest). The contents of the book are outlined and Sears details her approach to treating the gender identity of the historic individuals discussed in her data.

Time period: 

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