In his skillful hybrid of true crime and cultural history, James Polchin provides an important look at how popular culture, the media, and the psychological profession forcefully portrayed gay men as the perpetrators of the same violence they suffered. He traces how the press depicted the murder of men by other men from the end of World War I to the Stonewall era, when gay men came to be seen as a class both historically victimized and increasingly visible.
Indecent Advances tells the story of how homosexuals were criminalized in the popular imagination—from the sex panics of the 1930s, to Kinsey study of male homosexuality of the 1940s, and the Cold War panic of Communists and homosexuals in government. Polchin illustrates the vital role crime stories played in circulating ideas of normalcy and deviancy, and how those stories were used as tools to discriminate and harm the gay men who were observers and victims of crime. More importantly, Polchin shows how this discrimination was ultimately transformed by activists to help shape the burgeoning gay rights movement in the years leading up to Stonewall Riots of 1968.
A cast of noted public figures—Leopold & Loeb, J Edgar Hoover, Alfred Kinsey, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Patricia Highsmith, James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal—is threaded through this complex subject. Politicians, law enforcement officials, and psychologists weigh in to explain the dangerous relationship between homosexuality and violence.
And one needs to look no further than the recent TV series about Andrew Cunanan’s murder spree leading up to his shooting of Gianni Versace to ascertain, perhaps, how little things have changed in the policing and reporting of these kinds of crimes against gay men. Polchin’s vital history is as important today as it was then.
Praise for Indecent Advances
“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
“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