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.
“Indecent advances” is not only Polchin’s title; it’s a refrain, proffered by defendant after defendant. The legal strategy of claiming to have been enraged by a victim’s sexual overture was known as the homosexual-panic defense. One of the questions at the heart of Polchin’s book is whether the term “homosexual panic” described a real psychological response or was merely an ideological pretext. It’s easy to see how convenient the notion must have been to defendants, but it also would have been convenient to conservative elements in society who wanted to keep gay men in a state of fear, analogous to false claims of black-on-white rape that long contributed to threats of lynching and to the suppression of civil rights.
The oldest plea of homosexual panic in America seems to have been made in Massachusetts in 1868. Accused of killing a longtime friend, a young man named Samuel M. Andrews claimed that he had been driven into “transitory insanity” when the friend pushed him down, tore open his pantaloons, and said, “Now I’m going to have some, this time.” The word homosexual wouldn’t début in English for almost another two decades, but a fear of homosexuality was already being presented as a justification for killing a gay man. In the end, a jury did convict Andrews of manslaughter, perhaps because jurors were unable to square his claim that the overture had terrified and enraged him with his admission that his late friend had been making passes at him for the previous nine years, ever since an attempt on a memorable stormy evening that they had spent in bed together.
Andrews knew the man he killed quite well (there were hints that the victim had planned to make Andrews his heir) but, in many of the cases described in Polchin’s book, which span the years between the First World War and Stonewall, the likely inside story was more transactional: an older man had intended to hire a piece of “rough trade,” as young working-class men were then called when they identified as straight but were willing to have sex with other men for money. In an article from 1957 in Archives of Criminal Psychodynamics, a social psychologist explained the risky, ambiguous nature of such exchanges:
By Benjamin Wallace-Wells
This provides a ready made situation for those who want to rob homosexuals. In by far the greater majority of cases, the actual sex relations will take place first, with the rationalization that the homosexuals will then not dare to report the theft to the police. With their homosexual desires satisfied, the guilt feelings may then be assuaged by robbing the host. Financial gain is of course an added incentive. In situations like this where the man who allows a homosexual to take him home is not conscious of his homosexual desires and is being led into the situation by unconscious drives, there is sometimes a panic reaction when he finds himself about to engage in overt homosexuality. Assault and even murder are apt to result.
As preposterous as the idea of homosexual panic may sound today, for much of the twentieth century it was treated as something like common sense. “When a beast attacks, you are justified in killing him,” is the way one defense attorney phrased the principle behind it, in 1940. The press, too, sometimes discussed the idea approvingly. The New York Daily News described a 1944 murder of a gay man as an “honor slaying.” In 1952, homosexual panic was listed as a mental disorder in the first edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, and, as late as the nineteen-nineties, the notion was still so current in the popular mind that a Christopher Street shop selling gay-themed T-shirts was called, in what seems to have been ironic homage, Don’t Panic.
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It turns out that the psychological concept has a less than illustrious origin. The term “homosexual panic,” Polchin reports, was coined by a psychiatrist named Edward Kempf, in a 1920 treatise titled “Psychopathology.” Polchin garbles a key quote from Kempf, printing “sexually attracted” where Kempf wrote “sexually attractive,” and I took a look at the relevant chapter to see if I could make sense of it. It’s understandable that Polchin got confused. Kempf’s text is neither lucid nor coherent.
Kempf theorized that homosexual panic emerged from “the pressure of uncontrollable perverse sexual cravings,” that is, from the frustration of homosexual urges that typically arose in same-sex environments, such as prison or the military. According to Kempf, symptoms of the panic included a fearfulness that could lead to catatonia, a “compulsion to seek or submit to assault,” and delusional perceptions of being poisoned or entranced. Indeed, the hallucinations and paranoid delusions that many of Kempf’s patients suffered from were quite serious. One patient imagined that broken pills were being surreptitiously put into his pudding; another went through spells of believing he was God.
What was wrong with the patients sounds much graver than suppressed homosexual urges, which, a century after Kempf, no longer seem as monstrous as they may have in his day. Polchin wonders if the men, many of whom were veterans of the First World War, were in shell shock—though an exact diagnosis now hardly matters. The puzzle for a historian to solve is why Kempf strained so hard to pin the misery of his patients on homosexuality. Some of the men in his care did have thoughts about homosexuality, and a few acted on their thoughts, but Kempf interpreted the panic of a man who ate metal polish as “clearly terror at his own homosexual eroticism,” and, when a patient simulated death by lying still on the floor, Kempf observed that “this usually means an offer of sexual submission.” He comes across as a doctor too focussed on his hobby horse to be able to see his patients.
Perhaps Kempf saw every cigar as much more than a cigar because he was under the spell of Freud. In 1911, Freud speculated that delusions of persecution were caused by an unconscious attempt to fend off the idea “I love him” by rewriting it as “He hates me.” The argument was so ingenious that it held sway in psychoanalytic thought for decades. Since Stonewall, however, it hasn’t worn well. Assessing the supposed link between paranoia and homosexuality in a monograph in 1988, the psychiatrist Richard C. Friedman dismissed the notion that “homosexuals are paranoid” as “of course false,” and also denied the corollary, writing, “Not all decompensating, dangerous paranoid patients have homosexual ideation.” Friedman acknowledged that mental illness, fear of homosexuality, and violence could intersect. He recalled that, while serving as a medical officer in the Army, he once examined a paranoid schizophrenic patient who, when Friedman offered him a seat, snarled, “So you think I’m queer,” and attacked; the patient had to be restrained by four men. But Friedman preferred to describe the motive for this kind of rage as “pseudohomosexual”—stemming from a conflicted wish for dependence on a powerful man, rather than from a conflicted wish to have sex with another man. Men who act out such rages, Friedman noted, are not always delusional, and they may direct their rage at women as well as at gay men. The opportunism with respect to targets seems telling.
It took a long time to demote homosexual panic from common sense to history. Polchin organizes his account roughly in chronological order, and from time to time, along the way, suggests that the pattern of the crimes, or at least the slant of the reporting on them, altered with the decades. He notes, for example, that ideas about homosexuality were in such flux in 1919 that, when the U.S. Navy tried to root it out of Newport, Rhode Island, where the Naval War College was in louche proximity to summer homes of the rich and famous, the Navy instructed its undercover investigators to “use your own judgment whether or not a full act is completed.” Somehow the Navy investigators were to think of themselves as set apart from the gay men with whom they were having sex. Polchin sees in the crimes and reporting of the nineteen-fifties, meanwhile, a tendency for heterosexual men to assert masculinity through “violent rejections of queerness,” and a tendency for journalists to drum up panics about geographic clusters of homosexuals. Homosexuals drew crime to a neighborhood because they were the natural prey of hoodlums, the journalists warned. Polchin’s historicizing observations seem valid and accurate, as far as they go, but, if a nineteen-thirties murder was a little more likely to start with hitchhiking, and a nineteen-sixties murder with a pickup in a bar, the variations seem minor compared with the transhistorical—almost ahistorical—sameness of the underlying pattern, a threat that seems to have been a constant presence in gay lives for most of the century.
A seed of change, however, was finally planted in the late nineteen-fifties, when the gay community began to write about such crimes themselves, making visible the complicity of the judicial system and the press in entrenching homophobia. In 1959, for example, the early gay-rights monthly ONE discussed a case in New Orleans in which three Tulane students murdered a man who, they claimed, had made an “improper advance” as they were trying to rob him. After a jury acquitted the killers, the courtroom broke into applause, and a local newspaper ran a photo of the defendants hugging their mothers. The writer for ONE reframed the acquittals as a further injustice: “How many more times must the innocent die and the guilty go free before the unsubstantiated claim of an ‘indecent proposal’ ceases to be an alibi for robbery and murder?” Through such reinterpretations, a new understanding of the crimes became part of the project of gay liberation. In 1984, an executive vice-president of the National Organization of Women pointed out how absurd it was that anti-gay rage had long been considered natural. “I am a lesbian and I have been approached by men in straight bars,” she said. “In discouraging their advances, I have never found it necessary to try to kill them.”
In 1992, the journal Law & Sexuality published a definitive takedown of the homosexual-panic defense, by the historian Gary David Comstock. The psychological literature on the condition was scanty, Comstock noted, and the condition itself seemed largely irrelevant to the murder cases that it had been applied to. Summarizing the work of psychologists who had followed in Kempf’s footsteps, Comstock wrote that the symptoms typical of a man struggling with homosexual desires were “introspective brooding, self-punishment, withdrawal, and helplessness,” which hardly seemed like traits that would give rise to an uncontrollable impulse to kill. And it was far from clear what pertinence they had to the case of a hoodlum who had gone looking for a homosexual to shake down and then lashed out. “Legal defenses have misappropriated the disorder,” Comstock concluded.
The violence described by Polchin has not vanished, though these days reports of it may be less visible, channelled by the Internet to readers who follow local news or have an interest in L.G.B.T.Q. matters. In my own home town, Brooklyn, in 2000, there were knife attacks in a part of Prospect Park with a reputation for gay cruising, followed by a murder in the same location in 2006. That same year, a twenty-nine-year-old gay black designer was lured by means of online messages to a beach known for assignations, in Sheepshead Bay, a neighborhood in South Brooklyn, where a small group of teen-agers and twenty-year-olds chased him into the path of an S.U.V. on a nearby highway. The details of the Sheepshead Bay case, however, suggest how much has changed through shifts in technology and mores. Thanks to evidence of flirtation left behind online, the police were able to track down the designer’s attackers quickly. And, in court, when one of the defendants tried to win sympathy, he testified not that the designer had come on to him but that he himself had for some time been secretly having sex with men he met online. In June, this change in mores was enshrined as law when New York’s state legislature became the seventh in the country to ban the homosexual-panic defense from courtrooms, a move inspired in part by the 2013 case of Islan Nettles, a Harlem woman whose killer told police that he had been infuriated by the discovery that she was transgender.
In the demise of the homosexual-panic defense, the watershed seems to have occurred in the decade following the 1969 Stonewall riots, when the narrative of anti-gay crime moved decisively out of a gothic and psychological register and into a political one. In 1973 and 1974, arsonists set fire to gay churches and synagogues in California and Tennessee. In 1977, during a national campaign against gay rights by the former beauty queen Anita Bryant, a young man shouted, “Here’s one for Anita,” as he and three companions stabbed to death a gay San Franciscan named Robert Hillsborough. The following year, San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official, the city supervisor Harvey Milk, was assassinated by a colleague enraged by Milk’s political achievement. What the critique of the homosexual-panic defense, from ONE magazine to Polchin, suggests is that there can be a dark collaboration between an individual’s rage, whatever its psychological origins, and the license that a society extends, tacitly or openly, to its expression, and that politics may be the only way to bring this collaboration into the light.
Caleb Crain is the author of the novel “Necessary Errors”