“American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men” by David McConnell— Six Gay Murder Victims

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McConnell, David. “American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men”, Akashic Books, 2013.

Six Gay Murder Victims

Amos Lassen

Murder is the ultimate punishment and David McConnell in his new book, “American Honor Killings” takes an in-depth look at six gay murder cases and what went on behind the scenes—the things we are now just learning about. He tells us what really happened, who the men involved were and what kind of relationship they shared (if any). What is it that these murderers think that they are doing society a favor by “cleaning it up”? McConnell has researched cases that we regard as the most notorious of crimes. None of the stories are as simple as dealing with sexual conflict or an internal struggles or questions of sexual identity or some miscalculation. What drove men to kill is complex and what we do see is the presence of rage and desire.

I found this to be an amazing read as in each of the cases here, the characters (whether actually dead or alive) come to life and as we read about what happened we are touched, disgusted and disturbed. Terms such as gay and straight that we thought we knew the meanings of suddenly add new information to their definitions. Looking at the nature of masculinity and searching to find why crimes like this happen, McConnell arrives at no clear answers and instead adds new questions about rage and pride and takes us into the politics of gender and society’s expectations of gender. McConnell goes into the economic and cultural backgrounds of each case and leads us into extremist cultures. He bolsters this with interviews with law enforcement officials, families of victims and the criminals themselves. We see that even with all of the publicity about the murder of gay people that has shocked America in the past, it still continues in this country and as he goes through each case, McConnell not only teaches us something about murder but even more important, he tells us about the nature of masculinity in this country. He adds new information to cases now closed and shows us that new cases open all of the time. The murders we read of are not the result of gay panic and are not hate crimes per se, they are planned murders and the term hate crime is nothing more than a legal ploy used by the justice system.

I am quite sure that many will compare McConnell’s writing with that of Truman Capote and what he did with “In Cold Blood” but there is a significant difference here—McConnell deals with six different murders while Capote looked at just one. What is similar is the reconstruction of the crimes and the stories of those involved. In each case, the characters spring to life and we see aspects of them that we have never seen before. Let me warn you that this book will disturb the reader but it will also allow him to understand more about the nature of murder.

The term “honor killing” which comes to us, by and large, from the Middle East and South Asia is defined as a murder committed because a family’s honor has been compromised by the actions of a family member. It usually refers to a daughter or a sister who has taken part in some kind of forbidden sexual action that brings dishonor to the family. McConnell takes that term and uses it to show something about the murders of gay men by their male peers and in doing so, we see that honor killings have occurred right here in America. We look into the heart of this country and see what has happened here where men are murdered by those who have themselves been victims of neglect and abuse and live in a homophobic and racist society that allows them to act out as they do. Just looking at one of the cases here when the closeted Billy Jack Gaither told his straight friend, Steve Mullins, that he wanted to have oral sex with him,  Mullins immediately began to think that to protect his honor, he had to kill Gaither.

We all remember the case that caused Jenny Jones to lose her television talk show. In 1995, Joe Schmitz, a man with quite a history of mental problems and substance abuse came on the show to meet his secret admirer who was Scott Amedure, a gay man. On television Schmitz laughed it off but three days later he shot Amedure to death because he felt that being shown on national television, his honor needed to be defended. Punishment for the murder was a mere 25 to 50 years in prison. McConnell tells us succinctly that “Schmitz felt his personal honor needed defending.” This is the only high-profile case in the book and McConnell says that it is the best example of “a pure American honor killing”.

These crimes do not involve simple sexual conflict but the murderer’s internal struggle over who he really is or because of some miscalculated proposition have something to do with the way these happen. We also see that if the reaction is immediate than the murderer might be able to use the hate crime excuse but when Mullins did not attack Gaither right away but waited several weeks before stabbing him, beating him over the head with an axe, setting him on fire and leaving him to die, this is a planned killing—something that Mullins thought out very carefully before actually doing. This is not a hate crime but rather a planned murder.

The cases that McConnell concentrates on here in most cases did not receive much publicity and they involved young men who being confused and hostile lived their lives in rural America and in many cases in low-income housing where they were in contact with the less desirable members and aspects of society—gangs, substance abuse, low paying jobs and broken families. Their concepts of masculinity were distorted by their worlds.

 In 2007,Darrell Madden, a former gay porn star in Los Angeles who became an anti-gay neo-Nazi skinhead, murdered a gay man he had never met before. Is there any honor here in that crime? McConnell has done extensive research and has done it well and while his findings are hard to read, it is even more interesting that he is able to find some humanity in the killers. He says he wants us to understand what they are really like and he shows us the sense of pride and honor that these man have and how this sense can drive them to murder.

There is a lot of information in this book and a lot to read and a large cast of characters. It is a fascinating read and an educative one as well. McConnell proved himself to me as a writer with his novels and he now proves that he is just as good a writer of nonfiction. However, he is going to have a tough act to follow with this book but I am confident that he will and will do so with style.

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