Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Author examines early SF laws against cross-dressing


San Francisco State University professor Clare Sears stands in the GLBT History Museum. Photo: Alana Perino
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As a professor of sociology at San Francisco State University, Clare Sears is generally concerned with the present. But for her recent book, she reached back in history to help answer a modern question: Why do LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people seem to be favorite targets of law enforcement?

"I came to this project through an interest in the ways that the police would harass and arrest trans women, butch lesbians, drag queens, particularly in working class communities. And arrest people not for their sexual behavior but for their clothing," Sears said.

The result is Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco, released in December. It tells the story of how San Francisco criminalized cross-dressing in 1863, laws police continued to enforce for more than 100 years. Sears, a lesbian who's also a board member of the GLBT Historical Society, reveals how anti cross-dressing laws intersected with prohibitions on sex work, immigration quotas and deportation practices, marginalization of Native people, and even early zoning codes.

From the start, the book challenges common assumptions about gender in early San Francisco.

San Francisco is known as a Gold Rush "instant town." Conventionally accepted numbers show that between 1848 and 1850, the population ballooned from 800 to 35,000 and that in 1850, only 8 percent of the city was women.

But as Sears describes, Indigenous women were not counted in those numbers (here Sears references the work of historian Antonia Castaneda). Indigenous women and non-binary people were some of the many groups who were misrepresented or under-represented in the archives that exist of gender in early 19th century San Francisco.

"I was able to piece together the story that showed up in newspapers, in police court records, and in private papers that somebody thought was worth preserving. But there's a lot of stuff that gets erased," Sears said.

The archives do describe a kind of gender fluidity in gold rush San Francisco. Contemporary observers told of miner dances where "it was understood that every gentleman who had a patch on a certain part of his inexpressables should be considered a lady for the time being," and men "airily assumed the character of ball-room belles." This began to change when the Board of Supervisors passed the first laws against cross-dressing in 1863.

Sears, 44, found that those laws were couched in prohibition of sex work.

"Cross-dressing was never criminalized as a distinct offense," Sears said. "It was just one manifestation of public indecency, and all of those public indecency laws were concerned with the visibility of prostitution."

In researching these laws, Sears said, the archival gold was the stories of people arrested for cross-dressing told in their own words.

"It was relatively easy to find statistics for the number of people who were arrested every year. But I wanted to know, who were they?" Sears said.


Searching records

Among the most striking stories in Arresting Dress is that of a San Franciscan, surname Ruble, who went by both the first names Mamie and Dick. Ruble was arrested for wearing men's clothing.

"A lot of people, for good reason, would show up in court and say I'm sorry, it was just a joke, I didn't mean to do it, I won't do it again. But not Ruble," Sears said.

Instead, Ruble "walked with a swagger up to the witness stand" and told the judge, "I'm neither a man nor a woman and I've got no sex at all," according in the Evening Post from October 2, 1890.

The judge determined that Ruble suffered from "a hallucination that she should wear men's clothing," and sentenced Ruble to the state-run psychiatric hospital in Stockton.

"They died there 18 years later of tuberculosis," Sears said, using gender-neutral pronouns for Ruble. "But there was this moment, one day in court, when they were so defiant."

To find Ruble's story, Sears combed through the handwritten records of the hospital, then known as the Insane Asylum of California. Sears read through records of "thousands of people institutionalized, a lot for 20 years until they died, for such minor stuff. There were women who were locked up because their husband thought they read too much."

Today, most women can read without state intervention. And the anti-cross-dressing laws Sears describes were repealed in the 1970s. But much of the repression described in Arresting Dress has stubbornly followed San Francisco into the 21st century.

For example, Sears said, "the stuff that people described as happening in jail and what happens to trans people in jail today is so similar."

Then, as now, Sears said, jailers were "deliberately placing somebody arrested for cross-dressing into a sex-segregated cell block that they knew they're going to be uncomfortable in. It was part of the punishment."

[San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi is in the process of finalizing a new policy that would allow trans women who have not had surgery to be housed with female inmates. See story in the Pride section.]

As Sears writes in the book, "Judges approvingly noted that placing cross-dressing offenders in the men's or women's cell, according to their legal sex, could add to the severity of their sentence."

Sears believes that the country is still very much in the era of legislating "public decency."

"Today's local governments do it through quality of life laws, most explicitly anti-homeless laws," Sears said. "In the 19th century, you couldn't sit on the street if you were 'an unsightly object.' Today, we have sit-lie. You can't sit on the street at all."

Sears said that today's gang injunctions are also a part of this legacy. "For certain people, they restrict what items of clothing you can wear, what colors, and where in the city you can be," she said.

Sears tells the story of unsung heroes, the bold predecessors of the "trans women, butch lesbians, drag queens" whose modern harassment at the hands of police Sears had set out to explain. Laws meant to remove those who defied gender norms from public space are almost as old as San Francisco itself. But as Arresting Dress and a growing body of historical work shows, the lives of people themselves – of trans people, gender non-conforming people, and anyone else who defies gender norms simply by being who they are – are absolutely timeless.

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