A cultural historian examines true-crime stories from the early- and mid-20th-century press to recover a little-discussed history of violence against gay men.
“Queer history,” writes Polchin (Liberal Studies/New York Univ.), “has often focused on narratives of progress in which sexual minorities prosper despite the social injuries done to them.” In his first book the author takes a different tack, analyzing true-crime newspaper narratives to understand how the American press “shaped ideas of morality and immorality” about gay men. He begins around 1920, when the Justice Department grouped homosexuals with political subversives and a medical establishment steeped in Freudian theory promoted ideas about “homosexual panic (panic due to the pressure of uncontrollable perverse sexual cravings),” which later evolved into an in-court defense used by (straight) men charged with murder or assault. In the meantime, queer crime stories offered readers glimpses into a salacious demimonde. In the 1930s, increasingly sensationalized queer crime stories embodied what Polchin posits were emergent fears about sexual psychopaths. This led to gay men being arrested on minor charges and enduring “forced psychological treatments meant to control and cure abnormal sexual desires.” By the 1940s, the trope of segregation began to emerge in queer crime accounts. Accounts of black men injured by male companions “rarely made headlines beyond the African-American press.” By the 1950s, homosexual panic was officially listed as a psychological disorder in the first edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which was largely influenced by a guidebook assembled by the military. Yet on the edges of this oppressively homophobic world, LGBT artists like photographer Carl Van Vechten observed the suffering of queer men and filled scrapbooks with gay crime news stories meant to serve as an “unofficial history of queer life in mid-century America.” Thoughtful, accessible and well-researched, Polchin’s book offers useful insight into some of the lesser-known cultural currents that gave rise to the gay rights movement.
An enlighteningly provocative cultural history.