“Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall” by James Polchin— True Crime/Social History

Polchin, James. “Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall”,   Counterpoint, June 4, 2019.

True Crime/Social History

Amos Lassen

In “Indecent Advances”, author James Polchin  skillfully beings together true crime and social history in order to examine the relationship between the media and popular culture in the way they portrayed crimes against gay men in the before Stonewall.  We know that crime of murder  reflect cultural notions and prejudices. James Polchin here recovers and recounts queer stories from the crime pages which were often lurid and euphemistic yet they reveal the hidden history of violence against gay men. 

What was publicly related on crime pages of news media gives  insight into the figure of the queer man as both criminal and victim. There in turn offer readers tales of vice and violence that aligned gender and sexual deviance with tragic, gruesome endings. Victims were often reported as having made “indecent advances,” forcing the accused’s hands in self-defense and reducing murder charges to manslaughter. 

The book was published for the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising on June 28, 1969 and it investigates investigates how queer men were able to live in a society that criminalized them and showed little, if any, compassion for the violence they endured. Polchin shows how this discrimination was ultimately transformed by activists to help shape the new gay rights movement in the years leading up to Stonewall. We get useful insight into some of the lesser-known cultural currents that also played a part in the  rise to the gay rights movement. The book is a well-researched account and a valuable contribution to both social and gay history.
We are urged to explore ithe hidden histories of marginalized populations and how the violence they suffer just might be the result of a system that excludes some people from its protections, sending them to places where they are more vulnerable.  

“Indecent Advances” reads like a noir queer history of the twentieth century. In this shocking, unfolding narrative is a, deeply researched examination of how this violence has been institutionalized, accepted, and excused. Polchin has discovered a forgotten chapter of queer history that was hiding in plain sight in newspaper articles documenting decades of antigay violence, usually in coded terms.  The stories we read here show us a community under siege during an era of brutal violence against queer men as society and the law often looked the other way.

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