#TBT: When Cross-Dressing Was a Crime

Clare Sears's book from Duke University Press, Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco, reveals in intriguing detail through research into historic law cases, police records, and show business history the many dimensions of what was considered cross-dressing in the late 19th century, and how the laws were used to define and supress transgender expression for decades. The excerpt below is © 2015 Duke University Press.

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At right: One of the nation’s most famous female impersonators, William Horace Lingard

Gender and Illusion

Given the punitive forces impinging on cross-dressing bodies in nineteenth century San Francisco, their concurrent display in entertainment venues across the city is striking. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the vaudeville stage. During the final decades of the nineteenth century vaudeville developed as a wildly popular form of family entertainment that took San Francisco — and the nation — by storm. Adopting the variety-show format of the English music hall, vaudeville productions featured multiple acts, including acrobats, magicians, comedians, singers, and “blackface” minstrel performers. However, the stars of vaudeville were female impersonators — and occasionally male impersonators — who commanded the highest salaries, received top billing, and drew the biggest crowds. Unlike earlier cross-dressing theatrics in the English pantomime and U.S. minstrel show, vaudeville female impersonators did not don women’s clothing, wigs, and makeup for comedic purposes; they did so in order to convincingly portray the imitated sex. Audiences thus packed the vaudeville houses to see beautiful women in the latest fashions, fully aware that the objects of their admiring gaze were men. Female impersonators were not only popular with the usual crowd of young, male theatergoers but were also marketed as wholesome family entertainment that was particularly suitable for middle-class women and children.

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At left: Ella Wesner, male impersonator.

Since the early years of the gold rush, San Francisco had embraced female impersonation as entertainment. The city’s very first theatrical performance, in June 1849, featured a man named Stephen Massett, who “imitated . . . Madame Anna Bishop,” as well as “an elderly lady and German girl” auditioning as “soprano and alto singers in one of the churches in Massachusetts.” While Massett’s impersonations were probably humorous parodies, by the early 1870s more convincing impersonators drew large, appreciative crowds. In July 1871, for example, one of the nation’s most famous female impersonators, William Horace Lingard, made his San Francisco debut, impersonating a high-society fashionable belle, complete with fan and corset. Also in 1871 the male impersonator Ella Wesner appeared in San Francisco for the first time, performing at the Barbary Coast music hall Bella Union. At that time the Bella Union was an all-male venue, leading reviewers to lament the fact that “ladies can’t go to the Bella Union, they would all fall in love with Ella Wesner.”

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