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  • All that GlittersTrans-ing California's Gold Rush Migrations
  • Clare Sears (bio)

In early 1848, on the eve of the California gold rush, San Francisco was a small, coastal settlement with approximately eight hundred residents, including Californios, Native Americans, and Euro-American settlers. Within two years, the town's population had boomed to thirty-five thousand; within ten years, it had surpassed fifty-five thousand, as the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills brought thousands of migrants to the port of San Francisco.1 Over 95 percent of these migrants were young men, and over half traveled from outside the United States, arriving first from Mexico, Chile, and Peru, and later from Hawaii, France, Australia, China, Britain, Ireland, and Germany. The vast preponderance of men among these migrants transformed gender relations in the region, as thousands of young men struggled to organize their social, sexual, and domestic lives in the virtual absence of women. In this context, a wide range of cross-gender practices emerged, most often visibly manifesting in cross-dressing.

These cross-dressing practices, however, were joined by another cross-gender phenomenon that became a central fixture of the nineteenth-century political landscape—the political and popular discourses that represented Chinese men as feminine and Chinese gender as illegible or indistinct. Emerging in gold rush California, these discourses legitimized discriminatory laws and violence, and mobilized support for federal immigration policies that culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In this article, I analyze these racializing and feminizing discourses alongside cross-dressing practices to explore the multilayered relationship between cross-gender phenomena and migration politics in gold rush California.

This article is grounded in my analysis of the writings of Euro-American migrant men, as recorded in gold rush diaries, newspaper columns, and political monographs. In focusing on these writings, I do not intend to reproduce white male [End Page 383] dominance, but to analyze how these men navigated and deployed cross-gender practices and discourses in their quest for regional and national power. In particular, I explore two key questions. First, how did the predominantly male, multinational gold rush migrations affect gender relations in California, especially the documented cross-gender practices among Euro-American migrants? Second, how did these cross-gender practices dovetail with anti-immigrant politics, specifically the racializing, feminizing discourses that targeted Chinese residents for exclusion from the nation?

In exploring these questions, I draw from a growing body of literature that brings a queer studies perspective to histories of migration.2 I seek to expand the analytic framework used to "queer" migration studies, by proposing an approach for "trans-ing" histories that incorporates insights from the burgeoning field of transgender studies.3 This trans-ing approach centers on the historical production and subsequent operations of the boundary between normative and nonnormative gender. As such, it brings together a range of cross-gender phenomena rarely considered alongside one another—not only people and practices that challenge gender normativity but also cross-gender practices that do not provoke censure, and trans-ing discourses that represent men as feminine, women as masculine, and gender difference as impossible to read.

Developing this approach in the context of California's gold rush migrations, this article focuses on three main issues. First, I analyze the impact of these multinational, predominantly male migrations on spaces of possibility for cross-gender practices, focusing on how some Euro-American male-bodied migrants dressed as women and some female-bodied migrants dressed and lived as men. Second, I explore how some of these cross-gender practices did not pose a challenge to normative gender boundaries but somewhat paradoxically participated in producing heteronormative, white "American" masculinity. Finally, I analyze how trans-ing discourses were deployed in racialization and the politics of exclusion, with particular focus on the figure of the feminized Chinese man. Throughout the article, I argue that the politics of gender normativity were inseparable from concurrent processes of migration, racialization, and nation formation.

Instant and Peculiar

When thousands of young migrant men streamed through the port of San Francisco on their way to the gold mines, they transformed the small, sleepy settlement into "an instant city" almost overnight.4 They also...


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pp. 383-402
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