Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly


Alexander Chee

Luc Sante

Michael Bronski

Jim Downs

A skillful hybrid of true crime and social history that examines the relationship between the media and popular culture in the portrayal of crimes against gay men in the decades before Stonewall.

Stories of murder have never been just about killers and victims. Instead, crime stories take the shape of their times and reflect cultural notions and prejudices. In Indecent Advances, James Polchin recovers and recounts queer stories from the crime pages—often lurid and euphemistic—that reveal the hidden history of violence against queer men.

What was left unsaid in the crime pages provides insight into the figure of the queer man as both criminal and victim, offering 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.

Published in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising on June 28, 1969, Indecent Advances investigates how queer men navigated a society that criminalized them and displayed little compassion for the violence they endured. Polchin shows, with masterful insight, how this discrimination was ultimately transformed by activists to help shape the burgeoning gay rights movement in the years leading up to Stonewall.
Q & A with James Polchin

Praise for Indecent Advances

"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."
Kirkus Reviews

“He looks at cultural trends, such as the courtroom defense of “acute homosexual panic” in response to “indecent advances” from the victim, but also digs deeply into individual high-profile cases, often quoting the most lurid details from the original reporting, which will likely delight true crime fans and satisfy academics but deeply disturb other readers.”
Publishers Weekly

"Polchin’s extraordinarily well-researched account offers a valuable contribution to both social and previously neglected gay history."

“Polchin expertly uses men's stories between World War I and the Stonewall Riots to prove that the fight for equal treatment is not over, and that the history of the LGBTQ+ movement is not always one of activism and celebration.”
Library Journal

A “fascinating new book on the treatment of gay men in true crime and crime fiction reexamines the violence that people at the Stonewall Inn had faced every day, and the rage crackling up underneath.”
Alexander Chee, New Republic

“Excerpts from sources as stylistically disparate as tabloids, texts, novels, and the Physicians’ Desk Reference . . . enrich the scope of the book’s analysis to an extent otherwise impossible . . . Whether large or small, many of these stories function like mirrors, reflecting light onto one another or reflecting nearly identical images from today. James Polchin’s Indecent Advances inspires further exploration into the hidden histories of marginalized populations and how the violence they suffer might be the result of a system that excludes some people from its protections, exiling them to places where they are made more vulnerable.”
Linda Thorkalson, Foreword Reviews

“Compact and powerful, Polchin’s social history of crimes against queer men in the first half of the 20th century coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City. An important book for an important anniversary . . . Required reading. Highly recommended.”
Sarah Hendess, Historical Novel Society

Indecent Advances is a chilling, relentless catalog of murders of gay men in the decades of repression, when their killers could get off by alleging the titular phrase. James Polchin has done remarkable work in extracting their stories from the newspapers where they lay hidden in plain sight.”
Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snare of Old New York

“It is tempting to think of James Polchin’s Indecent Advances as the first noir queer history of the twentieth century. Its fascinating, vivid, case-by-case survey of violent crimes committed against gay men reads like a page turning clash of tabloid headlines and pulp fiction. Yet, beneath this shocking, unfolding narrative is a beautifully written, deeply researched examination of how this violence has been institutionalized, accepted, and excused. Polchin’s detective work on the crimes is thrilling – news stories, police reports, trial excerpts – and his decade by decade contextualization is astute and compelling. This is a history that has been waiting to be written, a splendid narrative that grips the reader as it illuminates its subject.”
Michael Bronski, author of  A Queer History of the United States

"James Polchin has written a vital, masterful corrective on American sex crime that redefines who was the criminal. In Indecent Advances, it was often the arresting agents and biased reporters who conspired to abuse the rule of law. Polchin skewers the triumphalist narrative of LGBT+ rights – the notion of a long march to freedom – by excavating a lost record of atrocities. Ray Bradbury would call this ‘the terrible tyranny of the majority’ against a minority group. This book reveals, existentially, why queer Americans had to rise up."
Robert W. Fieseler, author of Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation

"Breathtaking and compelling, Indecent Advances is a history book that reads like a novel written by a historian who uncovers evidence like a detective. James Polchin rediscovers the heartbreaking stories of how gay men’s sexual desire often left them dead in empty hotel rooms. For too long, these harrowing accounts have appeared as fragments set against the backdrop of larger narratives of progress. Indecent Advances dares to say their names and to tell their stories, and refuses for them to be left dead and alone."  
Jim Downs, author of Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation

"In his revelatory and meticulously researched book, James Polchin has discovered a forgotten chapter of queer history hiding in plain sight: in sensationalistic newspaper articles documenting decades of antigay violence, often in coded terms. Looking at gay life through this novel lens offers an entirely fresh take on what previous generations endured. Like the best true crime stories, Indecent Advances is both brutal to read and impossible to put down."
Wayne Hoffman, author of An Older Man 

"Indecent Advances is fascinating rediscovered history that reads like the best true crime murder mysteries. But, in fact, the stories it tells reveal a community under siege, a brutal era of violence against queer men in which society and the law often looked the other way."
William J. Mann, professor of LGBT history at Central Connecticut State University and author of Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood