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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #103f Sears 2015 - Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Ch 5)

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 5: Indecent Exhibitions

One of the most illogical (and yet historically typical) aspects of the "decency laws", and especially the ways they targeted gender non-conformists and non-white populations, was the tension between the desire to remove non-normative persons from the public gaze and the fascination with those non-normative persons that turned the viewing of them into entertainment. It emerges from the evidence that the real goal of the laws was not to eliminate non-normative persons and practices, but to compartmentalize them into controlled spaces.

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[Note: I think the first two paragraphs here actually belong with chapter 4, I lost my section marker somehow.]

In contrast to many of the “decency” laws that disproportionately targeted minorities (such as anti-prostitution laws), cross-dressing prosecutions tended to ignore members of racial minorities unless some other significant factor were involved. This falls naturally out of the framing of normative gender as an inherently “white” possession. Therefore transgression against normative gender can only be done by those who had access to it in the first place.

This did not mean that the intersection of race and gendered dress was entirely ignored. Stereotypical views of Chinese people included a systematic non-alignment with expected gender norms in dress. (As mentioned previously, the wearing of trousers by Chinese women was one piece of evidence used as the inappropriateness of the practice for white women.) But in the Chinese case, practices interpreted as cross-dressing were not treated as individual crimes but as evidence of categorical deviance.

At the same time that public displays of cross-dressing were being strictly prosecuted, private performances of cross-dressing were extremely popular, whether of the “freak show” type or in theatrical settings parallel to blackface minstrel shows. Even at the height of cross-dressing arrests, the very same newspapers that that decried “indecency” celebrated the fame and accomplishments of featured cross-dressing performers. There is even a case of a police chief participating in theatrical cross-dressing, with no apparent sense of conflict or hypocrisy. These “gender illusionists” often protected their everyday reputation and safety by cultivating exaggerated versions of gender normativity in their off-stage lives.

At the other end of the social scale from celebrated “gender illusionists”, the freak shows turned victims of the law into authorized entertainment displays. Rather than being a contradiction, both the legal scrutiny and the freak shows reflect the same social fascination with the establishment of norms and the negotiation of their boundaries. Gender transgressors were, of course, far from the only subjects of freak shows, but that gets into a much broader subject. The “slumming tours” through Chinatown were the racial equivalent of freak shows, with marginalized portions of society reframed as acceptable if viewed as entertainment for the privileged.

Milton Matson will serve as one example. When Matson was arrested for cross-dressing as a man, there was a major aggravating factor: Matson was betrothed to a woman and there was an implied sexual relationship. One of the ways Matson evaded criminal prosecution was by agreeing to be exhibited as “the bogus man” at various venues. By moving a non-normative presentation into the category of “freak”, the boundaries remained stable and the norm was reinforced.

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