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
A study of the intersections of gender and race.
Conclusion: Against the Law
I've really enjoyed(?) working my way through this book. Because my own writing interests tend to fall earlier and tend to be centered on the Old World, I haven't tended to cover much material that is more recent and US-focused. But Sears' research forms an interesting bridge between a world old enough to be textbook history and one relevant to people alive today. The San Francisco anti-cross-dressing laws were not taken off the books until 1974 -- five years after Stonewall! -- and arrests were being made right up to that time.
And for all that we, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, like to think of ourselves as progressive and open-minded, the impulse toward policing "problem bodies" in public spaces is still in full force. And it's still implemented using both economic and legal power: economic-driven racial segregation, sit-lie laws that boil down to "we privileged folk don't want to be forced to confront homeless people in our public civic spaces", even the occasional dress code that "coincidentally" targets the customary practices of specific cultural groups (such as hijab-wearers).
I sometimes read academic studies that seem to be intersecting randomly unrelated topics purely for the purpose of ensuring a unique topic, but in this case I think Sears took a brilliant approach in studying the cultural context of cross-dressing and gender presentation within the broader topic of who is and is not "allowed" to be fully present and visible in society.
Note: I had originally said this was the last publication I'd cover before going on hiatus, but I have one more post on Friday before going into "maintenance mode".
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This section summarizes the connections and intersections of legal and social attitudes toward non-normative bodies, whether involving gender, sexuality, race, or disability. These “problem bodies” provoked a combination of fascination and hostility which was resolved by instituting legal regulations to create a “safe” public space for those fitting into normative paradigms while permitting marginal existence to others as long as it served those in power.
The laws might be challenged by individuals with varying results, but there was little scope for collective opposition, in part because the exclusion of problematic individuals from the public sphere removed the opportunity for a more formal, organized approach. The legal and logical bases of the anti-cross-dressing laws were increasingly being challenged around the turn of the century, because changing fashions were blurring the margins of clothing gender, and because there were increasing demands for acknowledgment of transgender and non-binary identities. But it would be a long time before these challenges succeeded entirely.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors did not remove the anti-cross-dressing law from the books until 1974, and arrests were still being made up to that date.
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