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  • Electric Brilliancy: Cross-Dressing Law and Freak Show Displays in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco
  • Clare Sears (bio)

In 1863, midway through the Civil War, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a local law against cross-dressing that prohibited public appearance “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex” (Revised Orders 1863). That city was not alone in this action: between 1848 and 1900, thirty-four cities in twenty-one states passed laws against cross-dressing, as did eleven additional cities before World War I (Eskridge 1999). Far from being a nineteenth-century anachronism, cross-dressing laws had remarkable longevity and became a key tool for policing transgender and queer communities in the 1950s and 1960s. However, although studies have documented the frequent enforcement of these laws in the mid-twentieth century, far less is known about their operations in the nineteenth century, when they were initially passed. In this essay, I examine the legal and cultural history of cross-dressing law in one city—San Francisco—from the 1860s to 1900s. In particular, I explore cross-dressing law’s relationship with another nineteenth-century institution that was centrally concerned with cross-gender practices—the dime museum freak show.

Focusing on the complex, contradictory, and sometimes unpredictable relationships between legal regulation, cultural fascination, and gender transgressions, I develop three main arguments. First, I examine the legal work of cross-dressing law, documenting the range of practices criminalized, people arrested, and punishments faced. Observing that the law exclusively targeted public cross-dressing practices, I argue that it did much more than police the types of clothing that “belonged” to each sex; it also used the visible marker of clothing to police the types of people who “belonged” in public space. Second, I explore the relationship between cross-dressing law and a host of other local laws that targeted human bodies as public nuisances. In doing so, I argue that cross-dressing law was not an isolated act of government, exclusively concerned with [End Page 170] gender, but one part of a broader regulatory project that was also concerned with sex, race, citizenship, and city space. Finally, I analyze the case of Milton Matson, a female-bodied man who was recruited from a jail cell to appear in a dime museum freak show in 1890s San Francisco. Based on this analysis, I argue that cross-dressing law and the freak show had similar disciplinary effects, producing and policing the boundaries of normative gender, albeit in incomplete ways.

A Dress Not Belonging

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors did not initially criminalize crossdressing as a distinct offense, but as one manifestation of the broader offense of indecency. The full legal text stated:

If any person shall appear in a public place in a state of nudity, or in a dress not belonging to his or her sex, or in an indecent or lewd dress, or shall make any indecent exposure of his or her person, or be guilty of any lewd or indecent act or behavior, or shall exhibit or perform any indecent, immoral or lewd play, or other representation, he should be guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction, shall pay a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars

(Revised Orders 1863).

In turn, this wide-reaching indecency law was not a stand-alone prohibition, but one part of a new chapter of the municipal codebook, titled Offenses Against Good Morals And Decency, which also criminalized public intoxication, profane language, and bathing in San Francisco Bay without appropriate clothing. Alongside these newly designated crimes, crossdressing was one of the very first “offenses against good morals” to be outlawed in the city. In 1866, the original five-hundred-dollar penalty was revised to a five-hundred-dollar fine or six months in jail; in 1875, it increased to a one-thousand-dollar fine, six months in jail, or both (General Orders 1866General Orders 1875).

Despite its roots in indecency law, San Francisco’s cross-dressing law soon became a flexible tool for policing multiple gender transgressions. Before the end of the nineteenth century, San Francisco police made more than one hundred arrests for the crime of cross-dressing (Municipal Reports 1863...


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pp. 170-187
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