Arresting Dress: An investigation into crossdressing prohibition law

Prior to the California gold rush, San Francisco was a small coastal settlement of about 800 hundred residents whose greatest claim to fame was its fine port. Gold changes everything, however, and within two years the population had swelled to 35,000 residents, most of them male. This “peculiarity” of the population gave the town a wild frontier aspect. Prostitution, gambling, drunkenness and corruption were rampant. So was crossdressing.

The scarcity of women made crossdressing largely socially acceptable. In dances organized in the mining camps, some men took the role of women by simply wearing large colourful patches on their clothes. When proper feminine clothing was available, the crossdressing was more elaborate. Young George Dornin, who later became a Republican member of the state legislature, recounted in his memoirs a Fourth of July same-sex dance in which he was “made presentable as a young lady” and danced the night away. It is difficult to imagine a current politician admitting to such an adventure.

Sooner or later, however, San Francisco’s rambunctiousness had to be reined in. A vigilante committee was struck up to purify the city of corruption. By 1862, a number of “good morals and decency laws” were enacted and tucked within them was a prohibition against crossdressing. It would stay on the books until 1974.

This prohibition was a convenient catch all under which the city authorities could regulate all kinds of behaviour and “problem bodies”. Amid the backdrop of mass migration, the ideology of manifest destiny, the Conquest of California during the Mexican-American war, and the end of the gold rush, there were numerous intersecting cultural anxieties coming together. Crossdressing during this period was seen as a confusion of cultural meanings and the law was designed to sort them out.

The most obvious target was of course the trans population. Some trans folks argued they were not crossdressing at all, but were wearing their proper clothes, a reasonable argument in the current century but which evidently didn’t impress the judges in the nineteenth. If caught, they risked being sent to jail – for the wrong gender, of course – or even sent to a psychiatric institution.

Dick/Mamie Ruble claimed not to have any sex at all, and challenged the judge to locate femininity on their muscular body. “I couldn’t pass for a woman anywhere, even if I tried,” they said. (Physical examinations were sometimes necessary to ascertain which sex the authorities were supposedly dealing with.) Ruble was declared insane and assigned to the Stockton asylum. They remained there for 18 years until they died of tuberculosis.

The law effectively encouraged people to look for crossdressing criminals. One trans woman who had been jailed and fined but escaped the asylum continued to wear women’s clothing at home. She was harassed by neighbours who peered through her windows and reported her to the police. The law applied only to crossdressing in public, however, so she was saved from further prosecution.

Some other cultural anxieties playing out at the time were the women’s dress reform movement in which early feminists asserted the right to wear clothing that was ostensibly assigned to men only, and an influx of Chinese immigration.

Crossdressing law was a local innovation, but by the end of the nineteenth century it crossed paths with federal immigration controls. Chinese women who had been smuggled in and enslaved as prostitutes, for example, were seen as typical of all Chinese women. Chinese men who were often obliged to take on “women’s work” were portrayed as less than men. Gender deviance and deceit was linked to Chinese newcomers thereby establishing supposed gender normativity as a precondition to national belonging.

This view of society’s response to gender non-conformity takes Arresting Dress beyond the scope of a narrow investigation into crossdressing prohibition laws in San Francisco into larger territory. As author Clare Sears notes, the “law’s exclusionary effects continue to reverberate today. Questions of who can lay claim to public space, for example, re-emerge in police actions that profile poor transgender women as sex workers and frame homeless queer and transgender youth as public nuisances.” An interesting read.