Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #103g Sears 2015 - Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Ch 6)

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 6: Problem Bodies, Nation-State

The treatment of Asian, and particularly Chinese, immigrants to San Francisco points up the intersections not only in the general policing of who "belonged" in society, but of the complex ways in which gender and gender presentation were used to create rationales for that treatment.

* * *

This chapter comes from the angle of racially-targeted immigration restrictions. Gendered dress comes into the subject, but in an oblique way. One illustration: a Chinese woman who cross-dressed to stow away on a ship to San Francisco in 1910 was charged with violating immigration law, but not with cross-dressing offences. In the context of immigration law (and especially laws targeting Asian immigrants), cross-dressing came into the rationale, not as a charge against specific individuals, but as a categorical basis for exclusion involving gendered aspects of racial stereotyping.

Until 1875, the federal government had little interest in policing borders, and any immigration restrictions fell to the states. Asian women were an early target, with laws restricting women not “of correct habits and good character.” But gendered clothing played into this definition. When certain cases were challenged in 1874, the prosecution argued that the “masculine” character of Chinese women’s dress and habits were, by definition, a sign of prostitution.

The state-based immigration laws were found to be unconstitutional, but the gap was quickly filled by federal laws. The relevant one banned Asian women from entering “for lewd and immoral purposes”, alongside bans on contract laborers and felons. In practice, all Asian women were considered suspect and subject to exclusion. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act stopped nearly all legal Chinese immigration and was not repealed until 1943.

As noted above, anti-Chinese sentiment didn’t target cross-dressing specificially, but used stereotypes of feminized Chinese men and sexualized Chinese women to gain support for their categorical exclusion. The differences in Chinese clothing styles from American norms made their gender presentation “deceptively illegible”. A common accusation was "their men wear skirts and their women wear trousers." As noted previously, during the Gold Rush era, Chinese men were pressured into domestic labor, but now those occupations were re-interpreted as feminizing them, or perhaps more accurately, un-sexing them. Accusations were made that this gave Chinese domestics an unfair advantage in competition with white women who might otherwise have those jobs and who might be forced into prostitution as a substitute.

Various strategies were used to evade exclusion, including claiming membership in one of the allowed classes (e.g., U.S.-born individuals, wives of U.S. citizens), or simply stowing away and evading the immigration process. Immigrant women might cross-dress to have access to immigration strategies available to men.

In addition to purely race-based immigration exclusions, immigration law expanded to cover many categories of “problem bodies”, including an array of physical and mental “defects”. These exclusions excused invasive physical exams as part of the immigration process that would also have the effect of evaluating gender presentation. Immigrants could be deported years after their initial arrival if found to violate any of the many exclusion categories. Thus, those found to be cross-dressing at a later date, or living as other than their perceived sex, could be retroactively declared unsuitable and deported.

Time period: 

Add new comment