Skip to content Skip to navigation

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.

Contents summary: 

In the second half of the 19th century, a number of U.S. cities instituted laws against cross-dressing. Past studies have tended to investigate this topic from a context of gender transgression or sexuality, seeking to claim that piece of history variously for gays and lesbians or for transgender people, or simply for gender non-conformists in general.

Sears takes a different approach, setting the laws in the context of a general movement for the law (and dominant social groups) to take control of defining acceptable public presence of various types. The anti-cross-dressing laws typically were grouped with “public nuisance” laws, and their enforcement and interpretation intersected in complicated ways with issues of race, immigration, class, and the policing of social categories in general, in addition to the surface issues of gender and sexuality.

This study looks specifically at the context of anti-cross-dressing laws in San Francisco, where the political and ethnic context of the creation of the state of California, the skewed demographics created by the gold rush, and the anxieties around Asian--and particularly Chinese--immigrants had an intensifying effect on the dynamics of cross-dressing laws.

The introduction reviews the historic context of California, and particularly San Francisco, leading up to the implementation of the law in 1863. There is a brief survey of types of gender transgressive behavior typical of the mid 19th century in the West. Sears lays out the theoretical underpinnings of her study, focusing on how the law operated, not simply by prohibiting specific actions, but as part of a larger context of defining, creating, and policing normative gender boundaries and categories. These boundaries were then used to define entire groups of people as “not belonging” in the public sphere.

While Sears is operating within a fairly complex theoretical framework, the prose is reasonably accessible and the topic is fascinating enough to draw even the non-technical reader in. The final part of the introduction lays out the nature of her source material (public archives) and notes the gaps (especially due to destruction of many records during the 1906 earthquake and fire) and the blind spots (such as the influence of ethnicity on public interest). The contents of the book are outlined and Sears details her approach to treating the gender identity of the historic individuals discussed in her data.

Contents summary: 

This chapter lays out the historic and cultural background of cross-gender behavior in mid-19th century California, and in San Francisco in particular. The demographic effects of the Gold Rush, with its sudden and overwhelming immigration of miners (primarily male) is the most obvious, but this came hard on the heels of the forcible transfer of California from Mexico to the United States, with resulting upheavals in the balance of power between various racial, economic, and religious groups.

The image of the Gold Rush as producing a nearly all-male population erases the continuing presence of Native and Mexican populations, but this erasure is not simply a phenomenon of modern myth-making but was part of the dynamic at the time. To a large extent, non-white women were defined out of the social category of “woman” for the now dominant population of European-American men (dominant both numerically and politically). “Woman” came to mean “the sort of woman you might marry”. The shift in land-ownership law after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was relevant here, as ownership by the established Mexican families became more tenuous. Previously, white men might marry into those families as a means of gaining property and political status.

In this gender-imbalanced Gold Rush context, cross-gender performances by white men functioned to enable and enforce binary gender norms, rather than necessarily being a sign of a loosening of gender categories. Men participating in the Gold Rush were introduced to these cross-gender performances as early as the voyage out to California, where ship-board dances followed the custom prevalent in gold towns (and elsewhere in the West) of some men taking temporary female roles, signified either by some simple visual token or sometimes by more extensive cross-dressing. Curiously enough, another common category of cross-dressing was done by prostitutes who wore male clothing to advertise their profession.

While looming large in myth, the initial social chaos of the Gold Rush lasted only a couple of years. By the time it was fading, San Francisco had become a major international port. The presence of women (that is, of women considered to “count”) went from 2% in 1849 to 15% in 1852, but for some years after this imbalance was perceived as a key “peculiarity” of the region. The social forces that eventually created anti-cross-dressing laws saw an increase in European-American women as essential to “civilizing” San Francisco. Woven all through this was the interaction of gender and ethnicity in the creation and perception of social and legal categories. With the rising influence and power of a white mercantile elite (replacing the previous Mexican agricultural elite), the law was a major tool in shaping expectations in the public sphere that reinforced and created social norms.

The chaos of the Gold Rush had allowed for more fluidity and experimentation in regard to the alignment of sex, gender, and sexuality (though, as noted above, also shaped by the colonial history of the region). All-male (or primarily-male) dances held in gold camps used arbitrary dress signifiers to assign a temporary female role for that social context. The sign might be as simple as a patch or a handkerchief tied about the arm. But the tradition could also entail a more complete female masquerade, especially in San Francisco dance halls, which sometimes included all-male cross-dressed entertainment staff. Masked balls attracted cross-dressing attendees of both sexes and were a venue where cross-dressing could be used as advertisement for commercial sex transactions.

The racial aspects of these gender performances are not only seen in the exclusion of Native women from European-American social rituals such as dances, but also in the ways that cross-gender performances operated in tandem with cross-racial performances (blackface/minstrel show) in entertainment venues. These entertainment venues also included a “freak show” aspect, not only in the cross-dressing and cross-racial aspects, but in the display of exoticized foreigners. A group of shipwrecked Japanese sailors were encouraged to attend one of the masked balls in “native dress” and found themselves put on display as part of the entertainment.

Even after the rise of anti-cross-dressing laws, many of these homosocial cross-gender activities (such as all-male dances) became part of the celebrated traditions of California, but in contexts where they could be framed as a performance distinct from everyday public life.

Although the primary focus of Gold Rush era cross-dressing is on men in women’s dress, the women who came with the Gold Rush and subsequent continuing immigration participated in the un-gendering of social and labor roles. The traditionally “female” roles of domestic labor had necessarily broken down and, although there was clearly anxiety about it, men regularly took both personal and commercial roles involving cooking, cleaning, and domestic service that would have been unthinkable back east. Women, in turn, regularly participated in “male” activities such as mining, sometimes passing entirely for men, sometimes openly wearing male clothing for practical purposes. Famous examples such as stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst are only the visible face of a larger phenomenon.

Some women wore male clothing temporarily or for particular activities, with no attempt to conceal their sex. Women in male or male-coded clothing were common in San Francisco but with a variety of motivations. These included dress reformers (e.g., Bloomer movement) or prostitutes using the clothing as advertising as a way to differentiate themselves from “proper ladies”. Objections to trouser-wearing by women included the claim that it was too similar to Chinese women’s styles, thus transgressing not only gender but racial categories.

Although geographical proximity meant that some of the earliest Gold Rush arrivals were Mexican, Chilean, and Chinese, the larger wave of European-American immigrants felt that the recent Californian political changes gave them a special claim to ownership of the land and its economic opportunities. Political leverage was soon used to disadvantage non-white miners via special taxes and legislation. Chinese immigrants, in addition to being pressured out of the prime economic opportunities, were pressured into “female” economic roles (domestic service and other service industry jobs) and there was a regular systemic “feminization” of the image of Chinese men, both in text and in visual caricatures. This was part of a system of using gendered race to construct racially categorized labor, but operated alongside the shifting of normative gender categories to exclude entire racial groups. Thus, at the same time that Chinese men were feminized, non-white women were being excluded from the category of “women” entirely.

Overall, there is a sense that the Gold Rush era was far from being an “anything goes” context in terms of dress and gender roles, but cross-dressing was common among both sexes for a variety of specific purposes and there was little legal interference at that time.

Contents summary: 

In 1857, a woman arrested for cross-dressing successfully challenged the charge on the basis that there was no law against what she had done. Six years later, that legal absence was altered. The anti-cross-dressing law was the result of three stages of logic: that cross-dressing, prostitution, and a variety of other activities constituted indecency; that indecency was a social problem that needed to be addressed; and that local laws were an appropriate solution to that problem.

The 1863 law against a person appearing in a public place “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex” is only one of the indecent behaviors being attacked, also including nudity, indecent dress, and lewd play. The connection with prostitution was direct (although certainly not the only context for cross-dressing) as prostitutes used male dress as a signifier of their trade, alongside more traditional markers such as overly sumptuous dress. Many of the institutions and behaviors targeted under the “decency laws” had been openly condoned during Gold Rush times, such as prostitution (though only condoned when the prostitutes were white).

Behaviors with sexual implications were not the only ones under attack under these new laws. There was a wide range of “public nuisance” issues, including intoxication, profanity, gambling, opium, women’s presence in bars after dark, even inappropriate bathing attire. (The laws would expand to include other offences to the enjoyment of public space, such as the presence of crippled or disfigured persons and non-white persons in general.)

Initially, the increasing presence of (white) women in San Francisco was celebrated as supporting the re-construction of “appropriately” gendered hetero-normative society (in contrast to all-male society), regardless of the respectability of the women involved. White female prostitutes went a long ways toward allowing for more traditional modes of performing masculinity. But this construction of normativity required adjustment and definition of categories, particularly as the normative model for femininity shifted to the "lady", with its associations of respectability and domesticity. Non-white women were increasingly framed as prostitutes (i.e., not "ladies") regardless of whether the specific individuals were, in fact, sex workers. And non-white prostitutes were the first targets for indecency charges. Arrest records for prostitution were wildly skewed towards non-white women in contradiction to the actual balance within the occupation.

With the end of the initial Gold Rush, the men who stayed in San Francisco began bringing their families out west (or sent east for brides to begin a family). By 1860 women had increased to 39% of the population and “respectable” middle-class women were beginning to outnumber other groups. These women were seen as a civilizing influence and the white middle-class family was framed as an ideal to promote, preserve, and elevate, and thus to normalize. This new ideal offered a different set of opportunities for socialization between and among the sexes and new models for how to perform masculinity. In order to elevate the image of “ladies”, the category of “lady” must be purged of transgressors. At the same time that social categories were undergoing reorganization and stratification, a spatial reorganization occurred along class and economic lines, with wealthier families who had better transportation options moving away from the city center (yet still utilizing that center for civic and social purposes). This spatial segregation framed public nuisances as a problem of “visibility”--of bodies that were problematic because, and only as long as, they were present in public space. Thus the nuisance laws generally only targeted problem behaviors (or problem bodies) when observable and not on an existential basis.

While the timing of the rise of nuisance/decency laws was spurred by demographic changes, it also coincided with specific political triggers. The transfer of California from Mexican to U.S. control left something of a political void. The governmental systems that carried over from Mexican control aligned Catholic and Democratic and were dominated by men closely tied to social institutions and figures from the gold era. They were challenged by vigilante organizations (in the original technical sense of “citizens’ groups”) that aligned Protestant and anti-Democratic and were deeply suspicious of the influence of money from what they considered corrupt institutions. In 1856, the Vigilence Committee seized control of San Francisco government in what could only be considered a coup. In this context, the desires and goals of “the ladies” (i.e., “respectable” women) were used as a rallying flag against the old guard of wealthy madams and their friends in government. The political struggle was framed as a culture war in which single men--even when white and otherwise respectable--were considered suspect.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

Transgender individuals were the group most seriously affected by both the anti-cross-dressing laws and the intense scrutiny required to enforce them. Enforcement of something as subtle as whether the clothing being worn matched an approved body wearing it required both the police and those supporting their efforts to look closely at suspects and interpret a variety of clues. The crime, after all, was “public visibility”--if a viewer couldn’t detect the transgression, in theory it didn’t exist.

Suspects were evaluated against an expected gender presentation. An interesting side-effect is that, as the template of normative gender assumed white subjects, the focus of transgression enforcement was also primarily white persons. Non-white individuals might be persecuted for other types of "problem bodies" but they were considered enough outside normative gender categories that the question of "appropriate" clothing became moot.

The requirement that the gender-clothing mis-match be noticed meant that the entire behavioral and physical presentation came under scrutiny: size of key body parts, style of movement, voice, etc. Not only the police, but “concerned citizens” participated in this regular evaluation, and citizen tips were sometimes the basis for further police investigation.

This intense and subtle scrutiny also carried the hazard of mis-identification. If the accused person challenged the arrest on the basis that they actually were the approved sex for the clothing they were wearing, a physical examination might be required as proof. This meant that even minor variances from the normative gender-presentation “package” might be policed by the threat of the public humiliation of being stripped naked at the police station before witnesses. There were cases of women being issued an official identification card confirming their sex that could be used to avoid repeated challenges to their identity.

Those who were proven to be wearing clothing not appropriate to their sex endured a gauntlet of humiliation including forcible public stripping at the police station (even when the fact of the cross-dressing was not disputed) and documentary photography that went beyond routine “mug shots” to include “before” and “after (naked)” pictures that might wind up in sensational newspaper accounts.

Most cross-dressing charges were settled in the municipal police court alongside other petty crimes such as drunkenness and theft. The cases that received wider publicity and a place in the regular law court generally involved other factors than simple cross-dressing. But the news stories tended to focus in detail on the specific clothing involved and depictions of the accused by the press were in some ways considered part of the expected punishment.

Often the discussions around cross-dressing offences downplayed the clothing itself and re-defined the issue as a different offence. Dress reformers were a nuisance, those involved in same-sex relationships were engaged in gender fraud, and those with transgender identities were insane.

Contents summary: 

[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.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

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.