JULY 24, 2019
JAMES POLCHIN’S FORMIDABLY RESEARCHED Indecent Advances is an account of three decades of horrifying acts of homicidal fury directed at gay men, as culled from newspaper reports from the 1920s through the 1950s. Beyond recovering this tragic history and its forgotten victims, Polchin’s book explores the context and significance of these murders. Most broadly, he connects them to the association of homosexuality with criminality that characterized this period of American life, caught between the glittering lights of the Roaring Twenties, the cultural gag order of the Hays Code, and the postwar Red Scare. Polchin also writes about the medicalization of homosexuality in the first half of the 20th century — the ways in which a new industry of therapists and doctors accounted for homosexuality as disease and disorder. Finally, quoting critic Heather Love, he argues that “‘[m]odern homosexual identity is formed out of and in relation to the experience of social damage,” so that “‘[p]aying attention to what was difficult in the past […] makes visible the damage that we live with in the present.’” This raises important questions about the origins and meaning of the concept of “gay pride,” which has become the more-or-less official motto of the LGBT community.
While Polchin does ultimately make his larger points, the narrative is so dominated by extended accounts of the grisly murders that his argument can sometimes be submerged beneath the gore. Nonetheless, Indecent Advances is a significant contribution to queer history and to understanding the forces that shape contemporary queer identity.
The centerpiece of the book, and his starting-off place, are the murders. Below are representative examples of the litany of atrocities that Polchin unearthed from his painstaking research.
San Francisco, 1923: Alfred Lafee, a 22-year-old rabbi, picks up a 19-year-old sailor and takes him to a hotel where the sailor batters his skull with a spittoon and strangles him. Despite the killer’s confession, the case is dismissed for insufficient evidence.
New Orleans, 1933: Sixty-seven-year old Sheffield Clark is found beaten to death in his hotel room. His killer, Louis Neu, is convicted of first-degree murder and executed.
New York, 1936: Walton Ford, a 36-year-old interior decorator, is discovered in his bedroom trussed to the bed by a lamp cord, radio wire, and a belt with two neckties and a towel tied around his neck. Two 19-year-olds Ford had taken to his apartment confess to the crime and plead to second-degree murder.
Miami, 1954: William Simpson, an airline steward, is shot and killed by two young men. One of them claimed he killed Simpson accidentally because he feared Simpson was going to attack him sexually. Charged with first-degree murder, both men were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years.
New Orleans, again, 1958: Fernando Rios, a 26-year-old tour guide from Mexico City, is robbed and beaten to death in an alleyway near a gay bar. Although his three assailants admitted that they had planned to “roll a queer,” all were acquitted after one of them claimed the beating was in response to an “indecent advance” Rios had made toward him. It is from terms like this that Polchin derives the book’s title.
Murder was not the only form of violence directed at gay men during the pre-Stonewall period. They were also the targets of assault, robbery, and extortion. Many of the gay victims of these lesser crimes did not go to the police, as was the case with famous playwright Tennessee Williams. In a 1943 journal entry quoted by Polchin, Williams recounts being beaten by a trick and concludes: “But tomorrow I suppose the swollen face will be normal again and I will pick up the usual thread of life.” Violent crimes against gay men went unreported because the victims had as much, if not more, to fear from the legal system as they did from their assailants. Since it was a felony in every state for men to have sex with each other, gay men looking for sexual partners were always already engaged in a criminal activity per se. As far as the police, prosecutors, and courts were concerned, the real criminal was the man cruising for sex. Getting beaten up, robbed, or extorted was no more than the price he paid for being queer. Also, once authorities were involved, the crime became a matter of public record, potentially leading to the victim’s exposure as a homosexual. This was a far worse outcome than Williams’s “swollen face,” since such public identification could destroy families and careers. Understandably, most gay men, like Williams, would have chosen to take their lumps and kept quiet about it.
Murder was different, of course, because the victim could not report the crime and the authorities had no choice other than to investigate. Interestingly, what’s striking in Polchin’s accounts is how often the murderers were arrested, charged, and either convicted or pled out. While it’s true that the defendant may not always have been convicted of, or pled to, the top count — say, first-degree murder — that’s not unusual. Prosecutors routinely charge the greater crime as a bargaining chip in order to get a plea to a lesser one. Likewise, juries are routinely instructed with lesser-included offenses to allow them to reach a compromise verdict when they’re unanimously convinced that the defendant is guilty of something, but unable to agree that it’s a top count offense. Thus, the fact that not all the murderers were convicted of first-degree murder — though some certainly were — is not in and of itself evidence that prosecutors or juries uniformly blamed the homosexual victim. This is not to say that Polchin is wrong to suggest that victim blaming may have influenced the prosecution of these cases. Doubtless it did, but it’s the vicious nature of the crimes more than the prosecutorial outcomes that demonstrates the intense anti-gay sentiment that pervaded the entire culture of the pre-Stonewall 20th-century United States.
That is to say that the extreme violence with which these men were murdered went beyond the individual psychopathy of the murderers to more generally reflect the contempt, disgust, and horror with which gay men were viewed by society as a whole. As Polchin points out, homosexuality became associated with other forms of criminality during this period, as if man-on-man sex was a gateway to complete moral depravity. He quotes a 1950 article in the popular magazine Coronet that asserts, “Once a man assumes the role of homosexual, he often throws off all moral restraints” and “descend[s] through perversion to other forms of depravity, such as drug addiction, burglary, sadism, and even murder.”
While the association of homosexuality with other forms of criminality reached its apex in the 1950s, as early as the 1920s, New York police were raiding gay cruising grounds and gathering places in Manhattan to rid the city of sexual deviants who were deemed a moral pollution. In the 1930s, according to Polchin, there emerged the “monstrous figure” of “the sex criminal.” “Embodying a number of anxieties about aberrant masculinity,” he explains, “the sex criminal translated the social and economic turmoil of the 1930s into problems of gender and sexual nonconformity.” In the 1950s, the lurking specter of the sexual deviant merged in popular imagination with the equally sinister figure of the communist subversive, leading to an unprecedented wave of official persecution of gay men that lasted well into the 1960s. In the atmosphere of paranoia engendered by the fear that “they” — commies and/or queers — walked among us, the homosexual went from a garden-variety deviant to a superhuman villain. In Terror in the Streets, a 1951 book by journalist Howard Whitman, the author imagined armies of queers prowling the streets for teenage boys and argued that homosexuals, like other sex criminals, should be “quarantined […] not for months or years — but for as long as it takes to get him well.”
This extreme repulsion toward homosexuals was abetted by the medical and psychiatric establishment. Early on, homosexuality became classified as a mental illness. Adherents of this view perceived it as a more humane approach than treating homosexuals like criminals. But a world in which being deemed mentally ill is less stigmatizing than being considered a criminal is one we have yet to discover.
Moreover, even as a disease, homosexuality was particularly repellant, a point underlined by Polchin’s discussion of the “acute homosexual panic” syndrome first outlined by Dr. Edward J. Kempf in his 1921 treatise Psychopathology. This diagnostic category was based on Kempf’s observation of traumatized World War I veterans. He linked their trauma to “a tension between sexual desire and social interaction,” writes Polchin. The syndrome was characterized by “the pressure of uncontrollable perverse sexual cravings” that Kempf believe arose, in essence, whenever men went without female company for too long — as they did and do in the military. Kempf subscribed to the Freudian view that humans are innately bisexual but that well-adjusted grown-ups learn to channel their “childlike homosexual cravings” into “‘normal’ heterosexual expressions of desire.” Men who failed at this and were overcome by these immature feelings of same-sex desire could experience a panic that might lead to a mental breakdown or violence. “Homosexual panic was […] understood as a defense of human evolution itself,” Polchin writes in a neat summary of popular medical thinking. “[It was] a psychological mechanism meant to protect against extinction.”
Kempf’s “acute homosexual panic” syndrome morphed into the legal defense popularly known as the “gay panic” defense. Defense lawyers, now backed by “science,” could argue that the murderers of gay men were not responsible for their acts because the victim’s “indecent advances” had triggered a panic so existentially consuming the only way to calm it was to kill the queer. The defense worked. Polchin writes of two famous cases, the 1936 jailhouse killing of Richard Loeb (of Leopold-Loeb notoriety) by a fellow inmate, James Day, and the 1944 murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr, a Columbia undergraduate and friend of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. In both cases, the victims were depicted as sexual predators against whom the killers acted, basically, in self-defense. When Day was acquitted of Loeb’s murder, courtroom spectators burst into applause. Carr, who presented himself as “the helpless victim of a psychotic homosexual attack” served 18 months for stabbing Kammerer to death and dumping his body into the Hudson River.
The harsh stereotypes of gay men that crystallized in these decades — the sexual predator, the psychopath, the anti-American, the pedophile — and the history of violence against them continues to haunt queer identity. Polchin makes this point briefly in his preface but does not return to it. He writes that the atrocities he uncovered “filled my waking and dreaming life with grotesque and poignant details I found hard to shake.” Perhaps, ultimately, this headful of horrors overwhelmed his critical facility at the end of his study. Nonetheless, his point is a valid one. The public presentation of queer identity has been essentially defensive in our history, consisting of assertions about what LGBTQ people are not: not criminals, not sinners, not mentally ill, not pedophiles. Even the concept of “gay pride,” which sounds like an affirmation, is a reaction to the shame with which the generation of queer activists who first marched beneath it were instilled.
That defensiveness is not misplaced. Violence against queer people is alive and well. From the mass murders at the Pulse nightclub to the rising tide of recent attacks on LGBTQ people, queer people remain particularly vulnerable. The FBI statistics include only those attacks that were reported; many, perhaps most, hate crimes against LGBTQ people are not reported, according to professor Frank Pezzella at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Undoubtedly, victims choose not to report those attacks for the same reasons gay men of earlier generations kept quiet: a deep distrust of legal system and a fear of the consequences exposure may bring. These attitudes of mistrust and fear are justified. The “gay and trans panic defense” is alive and well in all but the four states that have explicitly banned it. The long history of police brutality toward the queer community continues to taint the relationships between the two groups. A 2013 study by the Williams Institute reported that 48 percent of victims of anti-gay violence also experienced police misconduct, with transgender people being particularly targeted by the police. Being outed is also risky given that 26 states and the federal government have yet to enact laws that protect LGBTQ people from employment discrimination. Understandably, in those jurisdictions where being queer can get you fired, discretion remains the better part of valor.
Indecent Advances is an important book not least of all because, as the Stonewall celebrations begin, it reminds us that queer identity has been shaped as much by trauma as by courage.