In Indecent Advances (Counterpoint, June), James Polchin, an NYU professor and cultural historian, examines true crime reports from the early to mid-20th century, showing how newspapers from that era reflected society’s fear of LGBTQ people and villainized victims. PW spoke with Polchin about his research process and how Stonewall changed representations of queer people in the media.
What sparked your interest in true crime reportage involving queer men?
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 1920s 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.
The title of your book is a term the media used to discuss crimes involving queer men. What did it imply?
It’s one term I talk about in the books—there are “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.”
How, if at all, did Stonewall affect these cultural attitudes?
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.
True crime reportage from this era says a lot about how society viewed queer men. How did it shape how queer men saw themselves?
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.