Homosexual Panic: The Millions Interviews James Polchin

We tend to use the word “homophobia” loosely, as if it were interchangeable with the term “anti-gay.” But the root of the word points something more specific: fear. Were the men who recently attacked a lesbian couple on a London bus simply anti-gay? Or did the women scare them?

In her 1972 essay “Gay Is Good,” queer activist and Gay Liberation Front founding member Martha Shelley writes, “The function of the homosexual is to make you uneasy.” And in the various forms of hatred and abuse against queer people, throughout history and continuing today, one can detect this unease. In Shelley’s view, it’s the unease of recognition. She continues, addressing a heteronormative readership: “We want to reach the homosexuals entombed in you, to liberate our brothers and sisters, locked in the prisons of your skulls.”

Before the Stonewall Uprising 50 years ago, fear of gay people surfaced mainly through subtext, often in reports of crimes and violent encounters. In Indecent Advances, James Polchin, a New York University professor and cultural historian, looks at true crime reports from the early- to mid-20th century, showing how newspapers from that era reflected society’s phobia of LGBTQ people and villainized victims. Here, Polchin talks about his research process and how Stonewall changed representations of queer people in the media.

The Millions: What led you to focus on representations of queer men in true crime?

James Polchin: Years ago I came across these scrapbooks by Carl Van Vechten at the Yale archive. He was a pretty big character of Modernism in the ’20s and ’30s in New York and Paris. He collected all sorts of books and records and ephemera. One of his scrapbooks was homoerotic material—photographs he’d taken, drag ball flyers. Interspersed with all these materials were true crime clippings. It was the first time I’d encountered small articles that were coded in their queer subtext. They were clearly important to Van Vechten as part of this world, and this period, that he wanted to memorialize. That started me thinking about how true crime played a role in, or was important to, queer sensibility.

TM: The title of your book is a term the media used to discussed crimes involving queer men. What did it imply?

JP: It’s one term I talk about in the books—there’s “improper advances” and sometimes just “homosexual advances.” They were employed by journalists and editors to suggest kinds of criminal behaviors that had sexual undertones. By the ’20s and ’30s we see them used more regularly with queer true crime stories. I think they were meant to signal, in a very opaque way, all the threats and fears that the queer victim posed to his assailant. The term “indecent advance” made the victim culpable in the violence or murder he experienced. It had a powerful resonance in the newspapers and also, increasingly, in the courtroom, for defendants who used that language and claimed, “I was protecting myself.”

TM: How, if at all, did Stonewall affect these cultural attitudes?

JP: After Stonewall happens, there’s a change in consciousness about queer criminality from activists. Queer people pushed back against the criminalizing of them in the press and in the courtroom. By the late 1970s, after the killing of Harvey Milk in San Francisco, you have a movement around violence. Violence becomes central to the way queer activism pushes for change—in terms of the way the police handle these crimes, the way the media reports on them, the ways laws are set up either to criminalize queer people or protect them.

TM: True crime reportage from this era says a lot about how society viewed queer men. How did it shape how queer men saw themselves?

JP: If I go back to Van Vechten’s scrapbooks, I think gay men were reading these newspaper articles, and reading between their lines, as a protective measure. They would understand the dangers that were out there. Particularly by the ’40s and postwar period, the ways in which newspapers took these crimes stories and amplified them into fears of homosexuals on the home front—they became something queer people had to push against.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.