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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #103d Sears 2015 - Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Ch 3)

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.

Chapter 3: Problem Bodies, Public Space

Sears' focus on the intersectional aspects of San Francisco's historic "decency laws" pays off when examining specific cases. The differences in who was arrested for what offenses, and with what consequences, point up the underlying purpose in crafting a civic environment designed for the benefit and comfort of a very specific and narrow set of people.

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This chapter surveys specific examples of prosecutions for cross-dressing from the archival record. The examples show that although there were a wide variety of contexts in which the law could have been enforced, from those living transgender lives to feminist dress reformers to young people of both sexes cross-dressing for a night on the town, in fact arrests tended to be used tactically, following their underlying purposes. Two different categorical distinctions emerge that the law was trying to address: men versus women, and typical versus atypical gender identity. The strategy of enforcement policed the boundaries of what types of gender presentations were permitted and who could claim to be male or female.

Women targeted via the anti-cross-dressing law included those claiming male privilege through dress: using male dress for safety or disguise, using male dress to access men-only spaces such as bars and music halls, or using male dress to live as an other-than-assigned gender. The law was specifically phrased to address only transgressions in public spaces and there is personal testimony that some people strategized their private versus public performance to find a balance between the law and personal desires.

One example of the complex intersections of motivation is Jeanne Bonnet. She wore male clothing--preferring a fashionable “hoodlum suit”--to visit Barbary Coast bars in the context of her campaign to persuade prostitutes to leave the profession. She had at least one known success: a woman with whom she then lived and in whose bed she was eventually murdered. While Sears does not address this aspect specifically (and so presumably the documentary record does not either), this suggests that Bonnet’s cross-dressing might also have been related to sexuality. Bonnet’s goals with respect to prostitution might have been thought to align her with the “decency” movement, but her personal behavior led to regular legal harassment under the "decency laws" throughout her life.

In contrast, female tourists participating in “slumming tours” were often encouraged to dress as men, ostensibly for safety but one can’t help think that the masquerade was part of the transgressive experience being offered by the tour guides. Women in this situation were typically let off easy or ignored altogether with respect to the law, especially if they testified that they were ignorant of it or were repentant. Being a “good girl” was a defense, but generally only if you were rich and white.

This chapter also explores other categories of “visible problem bodies” that are integral to Sears’ thesis but not relevant to the present Project. Racial visibility was addressed by means that included prohibitions on specific cultural behaviors, such as traditional Chinese methods of transporting goods. Maimed or disfigured persons were banned from public space under the guise of discouraging “fake” beggars. (There is far more detail in this section than I have covered.)

The focus on policing public spaces is reflected in the treatment of complaints against persons who cross-dressed in the privacy of their own or others’ homes but not in public. The same scrutiny needed to identify public transgressors often brought people in this group to the attention of the law, but such charges were normally dismissed as not being covered. (Which didn’t mean that they escaped public scrutiny and potential humiliation.)

As noted above, arguing that a cross-dressing infraction was an “innocent prank” had some success as a defense, depending on other circumstances. However the rarely employed strategy of claiming transgender identity (and therefore the right to wear garments of the preferred sex) was not only unsuccessful but could result in a verdict of insanity, resulting in institutionalization.

One side effect of the laws and enforcement efforts regarding the presence of “problem bodies” in public space is that banning those persons from view also had the effect of banning them from public participation.

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