Interview by Kalin Bullin, M. Blake Butler, Deborah Deacon, Christina Fabiani, Elise Forest-Hammond, Adam Kostrich, Jake Sherman, and Lee Thiessen
Edited by Rachel Hope Cleves
This post launches a new series for NOTCHES, which will feature students interviewing authors of recent works in the history of sexuality. The goal of the series is to engage pedagogical questions about the field. What methodological, theoretical, or historiographical insights might a new book offer to students? Why do instructors assign certain books? What productive classroom discussions might a new book spark? What do authors hope that students will take away from their writing? Our goal is to contribute a resource for instructors composing syllabi, for students preparing for seminars, and for anyone interested in learning more about a new book.
Our first entry poses questions to Clare Sears, author of Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Duke University Press, 2015). The questions were composed by the eight students enrolled in a graduate seminar on American History taught at the University of Victoria in fall 2015 by Prof. Rachel Hope Cleves.
I selected Clare Sears’ new book Arresting Dress for my fall 2015 graduate-level field survey seminar in American history to fill a gap I thought of as “nineteenth-century cities and sexuality.” In this seminar, I try to cover as wide a variety of critical topics and historiographies as possible. Many of my Canadian students do not have much grounding in American history before they take the course, so the books they read are often the first encounter they’ve ever had with a given subject. Since urbanization constitutes a central dynamic in nineteenth-century American history and historiography, I wanted a book on the subject for my syllabus. More selfishly, I wanted a book about the city and sex, since this is a particular scholarly interest of mine.
I chose Clare Sears’ Arresting Dress because I was impressed with her 2008 GLQ article “All That Glitters: Trans-ing California’s Gold Rush Migrations.” In that article, Sears introduces a new methodology that she calls “trans-ing analysis,” for studying a wide variety of gender-crossing practices. In her book, this methodology enables Sears to capture a range of “problem bodies,” who intersected in the streets and law-books of nineteenth-century San Francisco. I thought that her method might inspire the students, and I was right! For their final assignment in the course, a research proposal presentation, three of the eight students cited Sears’ method as an influence on their conceptions of their own topics. As it turned out, it wasn’t just the students who were influenced by Sears – I’ve also drawn on her approach for an article I’m drafting.
I also selected Sears’ book because I wanted my students to read something about trans history (broadly defined). As Sears notes in the interview, for many students “transgender studies’ relevance is not immediately apparent.” The subject is minoritized in the historical imagination. Sears’ book corrects this misapprehension by showing that regulating cross-dressers was definitional to establishing gender and racial norms in San Francisco after the Gold Rush. Additionally, through the lens of trans history, Sears discusses core questions in the history of sexuality, such as how the regulation of transgressive practices also rendered them more visible; whether cross-dressing re-inscribed or deconstructed gender binaries; and how gender binaries served as a technology for constructing racial hierarchies.
On a final note, I am happy to report that Arresting Dress would be well-suited for undergraduate classrooms as well as graduate seminars. The book is brief and clearly written. It mixes engaging stories, innovative methodology, impressive source work, and sophisticated yet accessible analysis. I’m sure that your students, whatever their level, will enjoy the read just like mine did.
Students: Your book examines the effects of San Francisco’s 1863 cross-dressing ordinance in detail. So many factors seem to have entered into passing this law, how did you decide which to emphasize as causal?
CS: I actually tried to avoid the language or logic of causality in Arresting Dress. Instead I focused on conditions that made it possible for San Francisco’s cross-dressing law to emerge when and how it did. Emphasizing “conditions of possibility” over “causes” might sound like a trivial terminological issue, but for me it was an important conceptual distinction, rooted in Foucault’s genealogical method, that allowed me to research and write a particular kind of narrative. In particular, it allowed me to explore the economic, political and cultural terrain on which cross-dressing law emerged, without overlooking the contingencies of history or committing to a linear view of change.
For example, San Francisco’s government criminalized cross-dressing as part of a broader anti-prostitution law. Consequently, I sought to understand how cross-dressing and prostitution became tied together under the banner of indecency, how indecency was identified as a social problem, and how local law became the solution. This led me to focus on mid-nineteenth century anti-vice campaigns, changing gender demographics, and changing approaches to the governance of public space. These various factors created a climate that was conducive to the passage of cross-dressing law, but I can easily imagine scenarios where events unfolded differently and public cross-dressing remained legal. Similarly, I can imagine situations where lawmakers banned cross-dressing in the absence of anti-vice campaigns or changing approaches to government: indeed, this seems to have occurred in locations that criminalized cross-dressing as a manifestation of criminal disguise (akin to masked robbers) rather than as a manifestation of indecency (akin to prostitution). One of my hopes is that Arresting Dress encourages scholars to research the histories of cross-dressing law in other cities.
My decision to emphasize changing gender demographics and anti-vice campaigns was primarily driven by my sources, which showed a clear entanglement of cross-dressing with prostitution, and clear of complex connections between anti-prostitution activism and the growing presence of middle-class white women in the city. I imagine most other scholars who looked at the evidence would also emphasize these factors. My decision to emphasize the governance of public space was also strongly influenced by my sources, with local law books and courtrooms placing cross-dressing offenders alongside other problem bodies. I do wonder, however, if other scholars would necessarily have made these connections. I have a long-standing interest in the policing of city space that preceded this research, and before I went to graduate school I worked for several years as a community organizer and outreach worker with homeless youth. Consequently, when my early research for Arresting Dress hinted at connections between cross-dressing law and nuisance law, and the undesirability of particular bodies occupying public space, I was immediately moved to pursue this lead.
Students: Your book introduces a new methodology for studying the boundaries between normative and non-normative gender. How do you think “trans-ing analysis” can be applied in other fields of historical research, other academic disciplines, in the classroom, and in activism?
CS: I developed trans-ing analysis as a methodology for studying the historical production and subsequent operations of the boundary between normative and nonnormative gender. The method builds on scholarship that seeks to queer history, either by centering nonnormative sexual practices (without reducing them to lesbian or gay identities) or by unearthing the sexual dynamics of social phenomena that are not transparently sexual (as in work that queers the state). In Arresting Dress, I use trans-ing analysis to bring together a wide range of cross-gender phenomena, including practices that were marked as non-normative (such as those targeted by cross-dressing law), practices that did not provoke censure (such as those celebrated on the vaudeville stage), and representations that depicted men as feminine, women as masculine, and gender difference as impossible to read (such as those used in political campaigns against Chinese immigration). One of my central aims was to develop an expansive and flexible framework that could be used in multiple contexts.
Perhaps most obviously, trans-ing analysis can open up new space for careful and creative cross-dressing histories. For example, when scholars encounter historical evidence of cross-dressing practices, they can use trans-ing analysis to closely analyze the gender dynamics at play, without imposing contemporary meanings onto their subjects, unless such attributions are warranted.
Trans-ing analysis can also guide historical work that is not about cross-dressing per se, but nonetheless involves claims of gender normativity. For example, I am beginning a new research project on the cultural history of emotional disturbance as an administrative and diagnostic category that is predominantly used in special education. Here, I’ve found that in the mid-twentieth century, the boundary between normative and non-normative gender was routinely deployed in diagnostic tests designed to differentiate between the normal emotional turmoil of childhood and a pathological emotional disturbance. Trans-ing analysis pushes me to investigate possible connections between these childhood psychiatric diagnoses and the growing visibility of what Harry Benjamin would soon term the “transsexual phenomenon.”
Trans-ing analysis can also be useful in the classroom, helping students and teachers connect transgender studies to other areas of scholarship, as well as to their own lived experiences. For many of us, transgender studies feels instantly familiar and provides a welcoming intellectual “home.” For others, transgender studies’ relevance is not immediately apparent and requires additional effort and reflection to uncover. Because trans-ing analysis centers non-normative gender, but does not focus on identity per se, it can provide a useful point of entry into this vibrant field of study.
Beyond academia, I’d love to see trans-ing analysis inform coalition work that brings together multiple groups of people who are constrained in different ways by normative gender, or by normative modes of embodiment and presentation. Ultimately, however, I think this type of work develops through grassroots community organizing, rather than through the utilization of an academic concept!
Students: In Arresting Dress, you refer to the intersection of gender, race, and sexuality in the construction of social norms. Do you believe that any of these categories can be constructed independently, or do you believe that they always affect and reflect each other?
CS: I believe these categories are always entwined, at least in the U.S. over the past two hundred years, which is the time and place I’m most familiar with. Certainly, if we look to other locations and periods, we can find societies that did not classify people by race, for example, or by sexuality, so we can uncover times when these categories did not intersect as they do today. But if we focus on the U.S. over the past couple of centuries, or draw from the work of Ann Stoler, Anne McClintock, Anjali Arondekar and others to incorporate a range of colonial and postcolonial sites, we will find countless examples of the ways that race, gender, and sexuality mutually inform and reinforce one another.
Numerous scholars, for example, have shown how dominant whites deployed ideas of normative and pathological sexuality to create and legitimize the concept of racial difference – and the practice of racial violence – through mythical figures such as the black rapist and the jezebel. Similarly, Siobhan Somerville has shown how scientific racism dovetailed with sexology’s investment in delineating a homosexual type. Other scholars have highlighted the ways that whites historically interpreted non-normative gender as a sign of racial inferiority, whether through orientalist discourse that marked Asian peoples as feminine and hence unworthy of U.S. citizenship or through manifest destiny discourse that framed the non-binary gender systems of some Native nations as justification for genocide.
These intersections continue into the present day, albeit in different forms, as the content of our gender, sexual, and racial classification systems morph over time. Perhaps the best example from recent times can be found in the photographs from Abu Ghraib, leaked in 2004, which depicted U.S. soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners and forcing them to engage in sexual acts and cross-dressing practices. As Jasbir Puar has shown, these images (and media responses to them) brought gender, sexuality, and orientalism together to construct Iraqi men as a repressed and sadistic racial other.
Students: As you mention in your book, Arresting Dress faces significant source limitations. What advice do you have for students and scholars facing similar limits?
CS: My main advice to anyone facing source limitations is to not give up! First, there may be more sources available than the researcher realizes. When I began research for Arresting Dress, several historians and archivists told me that I would not find primary sources on cross-dressing in the nineteenth century. Luckily, they were quite wrong. Certainly, there weren’t many sources that directly reflected the perspectives of people arrested under cross-dressing law. I did not find any personal papers or diaries, for example, and I only found only one letter, reproduced in Magnus Hirschfeld’s The Transvestites, in which the writer describes her fear of arrest for wearing women’s clothing on a body the law deemed male. However, I did find many primary sources that documented the perspectives of government officials, judges, and journalists and I used these as windows onto dominant ideologies and anxieties surrounding cross-dressing during that time.
Second, when a person does encounter source limitations during their research, they can get creative. For Arresting Dress, I had initially planned to analyze the arrest and court records of people prosecuted for violating cross-dressing law. However, San Francisco’s earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed the vast majority of these records. Consequently, I turned to the “police court” columns of local newspapers to recreate as many court cases as possible. This strategy was relatively successful and I was able to recreate over half of all recorded cross-dressing arrests. More importantly, I quickly discovered that San Francisco newspapers included a wealth of material on cross-dressing across a wide range of contexts, including news reports on Chinese immigration, interviews with vaudevillian male and female impersonators, advertisements for freak-shows that starred cross-dressing performers, and political cartoons that used cross-dressing imagery to demonize white feminists and Chinese people. I even found that some newspapers ran interviews with people prosecuted under cross-dressing law, treating arrestees as local celebrities. These discoveries led me to explore the relationship between legal regulation and cultural fascination, which became a central theme of the book. Sometimes I wonder if Arresting Dress would have been as interesting if the earthquake and fire had not destroyed police and court records!
Finally, I would encourage scholars and students facing source limitations to consider making it up! I actually don’t mean this to be as facetious as it sounds. If you conduct research that relies exclusively on archived documents, you will only be granted a partial view of the past. Moreover the documents available to you will be those that somebody deemed worthy of preserving and will typically reflect a narrow and elite set of voices. Under these circumstances, I think it is completely valid to engage in imaginative reconstruction and to raise possibilities that are unsupported by source evidence, as long as you acknowledge that you are doing so. In Arresting Dress, for example, I suggest that freak-show audiences and theater goers may have identified with and/or desired cross-dressing performers on-stage, even though I found scant evidence of such responses. This approach may concern some scholars, but I find it far less problematic than the alternative, which replicates the partiality of the archive, amplifying some voices and silencing others. Along these lines, I have recently been inspired by the Queering Slavery Working Group, organized by Vanessa Holden and Jessica Marie Johnson, who write of using imagination as a methodology to develop queer histories of slavery.
Students: How do you think your training as a sociologist has shaped your historical research and writing, and how can knowledge of sociology assist historians in their research and analysis?
CS: I first studied sociology in England, where I grew up, receiving my B.A. in sociology from the University of Leeds. Sociology in the U.K. is quite different than sociology in the U.S., with much closer ties to history and to cultural studies, at least during the 1980s when the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies was particularly influential. Although I got my Ph.D. in sociology in the U.S., from the University of California, Santa Cruz, my early training stayed with me, and I don’t find it useful to draw a clear line between historical and sociological work. Certainly, many sociologists and historians would disagree with me, but in my opinion, disciplinary boundaries stifle creativity and hamper broader conversations, not only between sociologists and historians, but also between people working within and outside of academia.
That said, I’m sure my sociological training influenced my research and writing of Arresting Dress. When I teach sociology to undergraduates, I emphasize that the discipline’s essence is the sociological imagination, which is a term that C. Wright Mills developed in the 1950s. It refers to a person’s ability to analyze an individual’s life in the context of their broader social environment and to draw connections between private troubles (such as unemployment) and public issues (such as economic restructuring). For me, the sociological imagination always has a historical dimension and historical work that most interests me always utilizes a sociological imagination, regardless of whether or not the author names it as such.
In Arresting Dress, my interest in the “bigger picture” enabled me to let go of historical details that eluded me. For example, I write of one person, Milton Matson, who was arrested for wearing men’s clothes on a body the law deemed female and who appeared in a San Francisco freak show as “the bogus man.” I tried to find details about this freak-show, such as its exact address and ownership, but to no avail. Perhaps a person with different training and interests would have been able to unearth this detail. Personally, I was disappointed by the gap in my narrative, but ultimately, I was much more interested in thinking through the relationship between regulation and fascination that shaped Matson’s trajectory than with knowing the exact location and conditions where his display occurred.
Students: Can you comment on how the discursive policing of public space and the practices, representations, and boundaries defining non-normative gender have changed from 1900 to the present?
CS: I haven’t done the research that would allow me to track changes that have occurred across the twentieth century, but I can certainly comment on similarities and differences between the decades I’ve studied and the present moment.
First, I see clear continuities in the ways that public space is policed. In Arresting Dress, I use the concept of “problem bodies” to refer to multiple sets of bodies that the local government defined as social problems and targeted for legal regulation. These included Chinese labourers, disabled beggars, and city prostitutes, as well as people who cross-dressed in public. Using the power of nuisance law, government officials policed these bodies as urban blight and they passed laws that alternatively excluded problem bodies from public space, confined them to particular neighbourhoods, or sought to remove them from the city altogether. Today, local governments clearly treat homeless people as problem bodies, passing local laws that ban everyday survival activities, such as sitting on the sidewalk, panhandling in designated locations, or sleeping in a public place. These laws sidestep the challenge of alleviating suffering to present spatial “solutions” that simply move the problem out of sight.
Second, I see important changes in the ways that non-normative gender is policed. Most, if not all, U.S. cities have stopped enforcing cross-dressing law, either removing the law from the municipal codebook or allowing it to lie dormant. Consequently, cross-dressing law no longer plays a central role in policing access to public space. This of course does not mean that transgender and genderqueer people have full or easy access to public space, only that the mechanisms of exclusion have shifted. Questions of who can lay claim to public space, for example, reemerge in police actions that profile transgender women as sex workers and frame homeless queer and transgender youth as public nuisances. Questions of who can successfully lay claim to a gender identity that diverges from legal sex similarly structure multiple transgender and intersex experiences, with particular consequence for those incarcerated in sex-segregated jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers. These exclusionary practices are deeply influenced by race, nationality and class and particularly impact the lives of poor transgender women of color.
RHC: Thank you for the thought you’ve put into answering our questions. I have one final brief question to close the interview. I was wondering if you could tell us about a book that you like to assign in graduate courses on sexuality, and why you chose it.
CS: My current favorite book for graduate courses is Vincent Woodard’s The Delectable Negro. It’s a brilliant and daring book that explores homoeroticism in U.S. slave culture through the trope of cannibalism, pushing students to rethink histories of slavery and histories of sexuality through close attention to white hunger for Black bodies. Woodard began the book as a graduate student and died before it was published; reading the book with my students provides one way to keep his ideas alive.
Clare Sears is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University. She specializes in queer theory and transgender studies, as well as critical studies of social control. She has published articles on transgender history in GLQ and WSQ and her book, Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco, was published by Duke University Press in 2015. She is currently working on a new project that explores the cultural history of emotional disturbance as a diagnostic category in the mid-twentieth century.
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