Arresting Dress

In Arresting Dress, Clare Sears explores the non-normative gender environment that existed in San Francisco during the mid-19th century to early 20th century. While explaining the ambiguity of San Francisco’s relationship to gender and gender expression, Sears investigates how geography, racism, sexuality, immigration, entertainment, politics, economics, and urban space could affect how gender was perceived and policed in a country that was supposed to be founded on the principles of freedom.

In the first chapter of the book, Sears explains how San Francisco first was a space where gender fluidity could thrive. The beginning years of the Gold Rush attracted a mass number of men from around the world, creating prominent gender imbalances. With the lack of traditional population demographics, men were allowed to explore their desires and how this ambiguous landscape could change their feelings toward “identity, difference, and morality” (25). What was incredibly surprising about this part of the book was how liberated some of the White people in San Francisco were able to live. Their since of being was accepted into society. However, as outlined in the second chapter, Sears illustrates how the rise of women in these environments also resulted in the rise of policing and conservative politics. The author shows how as time went on, “cross-dressing” became associated with acts of prostitution. The San Francisco government began to hold onto an idea of a governments that would promote good morals. This government would also criminalize those that looked different not just in White spaces, but against racial minorities. “Mexican, Chilean, Peruvian, and Chinese women” were seen as oversexualized but or inherently different from the normal gender or sexual expressions that Europeans held onto (45). This criminalization was also illustrated in the third chapter. In order to produce a “pure” heteronormative San Francisco, stakeholders had to couple the dehumanization of Chinese people with “cross-dressing” laws (69). While reading, I often thought that the radical expressions that were perpetuated in the beginning of the Gold Rush created this anti-vice movement for fear of disrupting the status quo of American society.

Chapter 4 explored how criminalization increased exposure. Criminality became predicated on how bodies expressed themselves, allowing police to take a different form of enforcement. I believe that the most interesting part about this chapter was the discussion on Geraldine Portica and the photograph police took of her. While the image was taken by an agency who wanted her in chains, it shows how many people during this time were put on display because their sense of being made them uncomfortable. This visibility was underscored in the 5th chapter on how “cross-dressing” intersected with the entertainment economy. The chapter showed that while people were policed for wearing certain clothes on the streets, when that clothing created an illusion of exploitation at the “Dime Museum” (109), it was now considered legal. While Sears does show the fine line between how cross-dressing laws were handled when it came to a “freakshow,” it illustrated how San Francisco entertainment environment also played into racial stereotypes against Chinese people and the use of Blackface for profit.

The repercussions of that are also reflected in the sixth chapter on the immigration policy and the perception of Asian people in San Francisco. It investigates the extra layer that comes with analyzing the lives of people of color. As shown in the reading, it also seems as if the hatred toward Chinese people played into the hatred of gender expression ambiguity. Some parts of the chapter spoke about how certain immigration policies were predicated on the fact that Chinese men did not present gender in the same way that White men did, making them the anti-thesis to “American Manhood” (128). Near the very end of the book, Sears reasserts that employing a “trans-ing” analysis in this book makes them able to employ how cross-dressing laws and gender ambiguity are not monolithic and they affected different subsets of people. They also question what this might tell us about the current criminalization of LGBTQ individuals by policing. I think the book allowed me to reassociate how I viewed a specific part of American history. I subconsciously saw the Gold Rush as a masculine and White era. It did not have “freak shows” are balls. I always saw it as just another facet of American colonialism. However, this book allowed me to reimagine that the values of freedom and difference that this country is built on, and how that idea might have influenced how some people in San Francisco wanted to express themselves in this “new world.”

1 Comment

  1. Good job bridging the various spaces and places where cross dressing might impact public life. We will be wading through all of this stuff today and Wednesday.

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