James Polchin's "Indecent Advances" Reviewed: The Theory That Justified Anti-Gay Crime

Historians in the News
tags: books, gay history, LGBTQIA history, James Polchin

Caleb Crain is the author of the novel “Necessary Errors” and the scholarly study “American Sympathy.” His second novel, “Overthrow,” will be published by Viking this fall.

In the bad old days, newspapers rarely mentioned gay men except in a certain kind of true-crime story. The first clue in the cases was often a body discovered in a hotel room. In 1920, the forty-seven-year-old scion of a New England piano-making family was found in New York’s Plymouth Hotel with “a fractured jaw and skull and deep wound over his left eye,” the New York Daily News reported. In 1936, the wrists and ankles of a thirty-five-year-old interior decorator were found trussed with lamp cord and radio wire, with two neckties and a towel twisted around his neck. The police weren’t always able to identify a killer, but, when they did, it often turned out to be younger man of a lower socioeconomic status. In 1949, for instance, it was a twenty-five-year-old parking-lot attendant who broke the neck of a wealthy fifty-five-year-old visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

The victims and killers had often just met, in casual circumstances, which puzzled some readers. Why would a man take the risk of inviting a strange man to his room? Reporters were sometimes coy. When the battered corpse of a writer of detective novels turned up in 1937, the Washington Post described him as the “victim of as sinister a mystery as ever he produced in book form.” In other newspaper accounts, however, reporters delivered, with relish, details about a victim that suggested a queer life, in which a motive for such risk-taking would presumably be found. The Philadelphia Inquirer catalogued “rich oriental rugs,” “hundreds of books,” a “large collection of classical recordings,” and “subdued but costly” furniture in the home of a lawyer strangled in 1953. After a thirty-four-year-old business student was discovered decomposing in his underwear in 1956, a reporter for the Washington Post noted a “pink pillowslip found looped around the man’s neck.”

The probable explanation of these not-quite mysteries: a gay man had had the bad luck to pick up a sociopath. While stigma shadowed homosexuality, bedding a new lover was especially risky for gay men. The search for partners had to take place in what one nineteen-fifties social psychologist called “the twilight zone between the law-abiding and the criminal.” Assaulters knew that gay men who were assaulted rarely went to the police, for fear of having their orientation exposed and being arrested themselves. Moreover, even when an intimate attack ended in death, the law was sometimes lenient with a gay man’s killer. A judge might spare a victim’s family the “embarrassment” of a full-dress trial, for example. And, time and again, killers won lighter sentences by claiming to have been surprised by what newspapers euphemistically described as “indecent advances” or “improper proposals” from the deceased. For most of the twentieth century, it was widely believed that “normal” men sometimes reacted to a homosexual invitation with lethal violence, and the claim of “indecent advances” figured so often in reports of murdered gay men that the hazard of such violence was one of the few things that many heterosexuals knew, or thought they knew, about gay life.

To shed light on these killings, the social conditions and psychological conflicts that gave rise to them, and the manipulative and sensationalist coverage that they often received in the press, the cultural historian James Polchin has written “Indecent Advances,” a grisly, sobering, comprehensively researched new history. The subject matter doesn’t make for light reading; Polchin admits to feeling “haunted” by what he discovered in archives. But it’s impossible to understand gay life in twentieth-century America without reckoning with the dark stories. Gay men were unable to shake free of them until they figured out how to tell the stories themselves, in a new way.

Read entire article at New Yorker

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