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

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

Shocking Stories

Amos Lassen

In James Polchin’s “Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall”, we read of true crime headlines and the forgotten murders of gay men.

Some of you undoubtedly remember when gay were misunderstood and exploitered by American society. Safety was not part of their lives even with the fires of revolution beginning to take hold of the LGBTQ community. Polchin exposes this through story after story  and reminds us what really influenced the change that came. As he researched this topic, Polchin

discovered this as well as the early cultural shifts that fueled the revolution that was Stonewall. He has collected these stories and they are what make up “Indecent Advances” and we read one sad story after another about shocking crimes in which the victim becomes blame for the crime simply because of his sexuality. The killers used the excuse that they had to deal with indecent advances and in order to protect their heterosexism, they acted as the did.

We read of “gay panic” defense a tactic still being used today. Crimes against gay men sometimes led to uprisings by the press and local officials. Prepare to be shocked by want you read it.

My home town of New Orleans does not get off easy here as seen in the brutal murders of William Simpson in Miami, 1954, and Fernando Rios  in 1958. While Simpson’s killers were pardoned in the newspapers and they were found guilty of manslaughter (a lesser crime) in court and both served time. Rios’ murderers (Tulane fraternity boys) were acquitted and were applauded. uproarious applause. (Killing a queer is good for society, it seems). Polchin takes through gay history via the cries that were perpetrated against us. We read of the infamous Chicago gay murderers Leopold and Loeb as proof that sexual deviancy causes crime. We see that many thought that the friendship pf David Kammerer with Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac influenced their lives. Polchin’s research is amazing as is his ability to tell stories. This is the kind of book that you want to clear your day before beginning or you will find yourself unable to stop reading (I read it right through, twice!!!).

Something unexpected was Polchin’s looks at our literature (including James Baldwin and Gore Vidal) as well as the then Black press in order to feel the background of the time he was writing about. He also gained a different understanding of what was going on as compared to what the white press was reporting.

It is important for our community to know that we did not take this as it was given to us and we fought back as best we could. The launch of “ONE” magazine as a tool for a very early effort to fight homophobia and incorrect coverage by the press was so very important and it was able to a degree “counter narratives of homosexual criminality and mental sickness in the popular press” and this was so very important in making others aware of homosexuality as simply a minority identity. Along with Alfred Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” that added to the conversation and the beginning of the revolution that continued to carry on for the following decades. Once the seeds for revolution were planted, there was no turning back. Unfortunately violence continues and we understand that our history is filled with violence. We have to wonder what brought about the change in attitude toward the LGBTQ community. Of course there are still enemies and haters out there and even though the public media is no longer on their side, we still face violence and hatred. Those misinterpreted verses for the Hebrew bible that are really about the lack of hospitality are still being interpreted incorrectly and I can tell you are a sincere and concerned person who studies the Bible faithfully, that they are wrong but then I have also learned that we can twist into saying whatever we need it to say.

With the amount of LGBT literature that I read, it is quite hard to convince me of something new. Polchin was able to do so without twisting my arm at all. I was swept up into a world of crime in which the victims in no way deserved their fate. It was allotted simply based on their sexuality and nothing else. Since when is one’s sexuality a crime and how is punishment administered? This is the shocking information you will find here.

Polchin brings back a forgotten era of queer history (how quickly we forget). He brings together his exceptional crime research with his marvelous skills of analysis to look at how  the media, psychological theories and prejudice perpetuated the idea that gay men were sexual deviants. Polchin’s contribution to our history is both valuable and important and we owe him a great deal.




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