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Thursday, February 26, 2015

19th Century San Francisco Was Not Very Nice to Cross-Dressers

Posted By on Thu, Feb 26, 2015 at 9:21 AM

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The San Francisco of the 19th Century exerts a romantic tug on the present day, a sepia-toned metropolis that sprang up out of nothing to attract robber barons, writers, and eccentrics only to be destroyed by an earthquake and fire. But among the Leland Stanfords and Jack Londons and Emperor Nortons of that “instant city” was a municipal government grappling with a radically new social norms, a huge Chinese community, and a massive gender imbalance.

SFSU sociologist Clare Sears has documented that bygone era through the lens of a particular type of social outcast: the cross-dresser. Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Duke University Press), is a slim yet comprehensive look at how an 1863 law against appearing in public dressed as a different sex invited a regime of surveillance upon “problem bodies.”

The book covers a lot of ground, but Sears’ most useful formulation might be her idea of looking for, looking at, and looking past. In 19th century S.F., the city regarded cross-dressers as a nuisance, like brothels or sewage, which had to be cleaned up (looking for). But at the same time, the proliferation of problem bodies was simply too titillating not to play up as news headlines and tourist attractions (looking at), even as Chinatown’s overwhelming Other-ness effectively meant its residents flew beneath the radar (looking past).

In fleshing all this out, Sears unearths some startling facts and anecdotes. Were you aware, for instance, that at one point, the image of a cross-dressing miner was a visual shorthand for Gold Rush-era California? That a onetime police chief who was obsessed with public morality actually performed in drag himself? Or that “slumming tours” were once a popular pastime, where middle-class people were led through Chinatown’s opium dens, many of them as fake as Disneyland, to gawk at the strange wonders of men in pigtails?

The main challenge in writing about these topics is obviously the lack of archival material; nearly all legal records from that era were lost in 1906. So Sears had to get creative and painstakingly recreate them through newspaper accounts.

“The newspapers at the time regularly ran columns on what happened in the local police courts, so I was able to piece together some information on about half of them,” Sears told me. “But it was only on the cases the papers took up.” The 1891 case of Edward Livernash, arrested for “masquerading as a woman,” spurred sensational accounts of the prisoner’s clothes, in promiscuous detail, down to his black gloves and “fashionable traveling ulster of gray goods with a small check.”

It wasn’t always the sight of male bodies wearing hoopskirts through Portsmouth Square that brought out the long arm of the law, either. Rather, at a time when it was considered perfectly acceptable to take children to the freak shows to witness pictures of diseased genitalia, the specter of a woman wearing pants could lead to a tabloid feeding frenzy.

Some prominent cases led to “multi-page stories, with interviews and sketches of people who were arrested for wearing men’s clothing,” Sears said. Proto-feminist Mamie Baldwin, arrested on July 4, 1896 while wearing a “natty suit” and fedora, was deemed to have “carried the ‘New Woman’ fad too far.” Policing gender binaries allowed a city that equated personal propriety with public order “to displace bigger questions about different sexual identities and women’s rights, all along this figure of a person wearing men’s clothes on a body they deemed female,” Sears said.

Her tone is sober and academic throughout, but it doesn’t take much to read between the lines and sense Sears’ delight with the absurdity of these incidents. However, the tragic aspect still resonates today. The homeless have become the new “problem bodies,” and of course, many homeless San Franciscans not only identify as LGBT but are also what we might consider cross-dressers.

Then as now, they are “a nuisance that is regulated through space,” Sears said. “There’s ways I was immersing myself in this history that was like going to another time, another place, another world. But in other ways it’s so, so, familiar.”
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About The Author

Pete Kane

Pete Kane

Pete Kane is a total gaylord who is trying to get to every national park before age 40


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