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The Ugly Laws

By Kari Santos | Dec. 2, 2009

Law Office Management

Dec. 2, 2009

The Ugly Laws

Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover. The stark photo by Paul Strand illustrating The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public conveys perfectly the realities and subtleties described in its pages?including the fear, pity, and revulsion with which the public so often regards those with physical disabilities.

The book takes on the American history of "looksist" legislation?focusing on the Unsightly Beggar Laws, dubbed in modern parlance Ugly Laws, which were enacted beginning in the late 1800s and flourished until astonishingly recently. It's difficult reading?in more ways than one.

Though Chicago is widely cited as the birthplace of the Ugly Laws, in truth San Francisco owns that dishonorable distinction. Passed in 1867, Order No. 783 decreed: "Any person who is diseased, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, or thoroughfares or public places in the City or County of San Francisco, shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself to public view." Violators could be fined $25, imprisoned 25 days, or both?and were. There were no known legal challenges to pure Ugly Laws such as this one, which prohibited the mere act of being seen.

Susan Schweik, author of The Ugly Laws and an English professor and codirector of the disability studies program at UC Berkeley, combs through laws and literature to discern how and why that ordinance was wildly replicated throughout the country.

Placing the phenomenon in historical context, she explains it as part of a wave of municipal regulations aimed at ridding the streets of those deemed "difficult" to behold: prostitutes, immigrants, homosexuals, and racial minorities.

A look at the most fertile period of this legislation underscores the theory. For example, San Francisco's first anti-cross-dressing ordinance was passed in 1865; its trendsetting Ugly Law emerged two years later. And five years after that, the city passed another regulation restricting any immigrant "lunatic, idiot, deaf, blind, cripple, or infirm person" who was not a member of an existing resident family.

To foment support for such laws, supporters appealed to the public's desire to crack down on those who would become "public charges" and to ferret out presumed fakers who were making money from their trickery. Particularly to be protected from the unsightly were pregnant women, who might suffer "maternal impression," a postulate holding that what they saw would stamp and shape their babies at birth.

The last Ugly Law, a Chicago city code banning public appearances by "any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object," was finally repealed in 1973. One of the repeal's sponsors noted that if enforced, "it would have banned Franklin Delano Roosevelt from visiting Chicago."

On a practical level, The Ugly Laws is also difficult reading because it's a text written by a scholar in a scholarly style, its sentences often stuffed with jargon and obscure references. Like this one: Here and in the next two chapters, I follow the by now familiar "critique of 'single-axis' frameworks" and principle of "intersectionality" developed by Kimberle Crenshaw and others, exploring how, as Valerie Smith puts it, the apparent dominance of one term in this field of interpretation?disability?"masks both the operation of ... others and the interconnections among them" even as disabled people so often disappear in critical discussions alert to other interconnections.

And finally, the book is troublesome because it leaves the reader with grist for some haunting introspection. For better and for worse, love them or loath them, many of today's legal protections and exclusions?from the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act to our own Prop. 8?have their roots in the Ugly Laws.

Barbara Kate Repa is a lawyer, author, and editor in San Francisco.


Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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