In 1863, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed a law that criminalized appearing in public in “a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” Adopted as part of a broader anti-indecency campaign, cross-dressing law became a flexible tool for policing multiple gender transgressions, facilitating over one hundred arrests before the century’s end. Over forty U.S. cities passed similar laws during this time, yet little is known about their emergence, operations, or effects.
In this talk, professor Clare Sears traces the career of San Francisco’s anti-cross-dressing law from municipal courtrooms and codebooks to newspaper scandals, vaudevillian theater, freak-show performances, and commercial “slumming tours.” Using a wealth of archival material, they show that the law did not simply police normative gender but actively produced it by creating new definitions of gender normality and abnormality. Their talk also highlights the tenacity of people who defied the law, spoke out when sentenced, and articulated different gender possibilities.
About Our Presenter
Clare Sears is director of the Sexuality Studies Master of Arts Program and associate professor of Sociology and Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University. They are author of the book, Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Duke University Press, 2015), which was shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award in 2016 and was co-winner of the Committee on LGBT History’s John Boswell Award in 2017. They have published articles in Women’s Studies Quarterly, GLQ, and the Routledge History of Queer America. They also co-edited a special issue of the journal Social Justice on sexuality and criminalization.
Clare holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Cruz (2005), an M.A. from the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002), and a BA from the University of Leeds, England (1992). They have received multiple awards, including a Fulbright Fellowship and a postdoctoral fellowship from the University of California Humanities Research Institute. They are currently working on a new book-length project that explores the interplay of sexuality, gender and psychiatric disability in law and popular culture.
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Images (L to R)- Ella Wesner, c.1873 photographed by Napoleon Sarony; “Wolf in a Sheep’s Clothing or Jeff in Crinoline, 1865. Image courtesy of West Virginia University Library; Omar Kingsley performing as Ella Zoyara, c.1860.