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Indecent Advances: The Hidden History of Murder and Masculinity Before Stonewall

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A hybrid of true crime and social history that examines how popular culture, the media, and the psychological profession portrayed crimes against gay men in the years leading up to the Stonewall Riots. 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 forcef A hybrid of true crime and social history that examines how popular culture, the media, and the psychological profession portrayed crimes against gay men in the years leading up to the Stonewall Riots. 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.


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A hybrid of true crime and social history that examines how popular culture, the media, and the psychological profession portrayed crimes against gay men in the years leading up to the Stonewall Riots. 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 forcef A hybrid of true crime and social history that examines how popular culture, the media, and the psychological profession portrayed crimes against gay men in the years leading up to the Stonewall Riots. 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.

30 review for Indecent Advances: The Hidden History of Murder and Masculinity Before Stonewall

  1. 5 out of 5

    Carley Moore

    A must read for lovers of American history, teachers, print scholars, and anyone who is queer or cares about queer people! Polchin uncovers a lost archive through a close-reading of newspaper accounts of violence against queer men in pre-Stonewall New York. The results are fascinating and disturbing. I love this book and think everyone should read it. It's going to win big prizes because honestly there is nothing like it. It's historical, but a page-turner and makes you care deeply (if you already A must read for lovers of American history, teachers, print scholars, and anyone who is queer or cares about queer people! Polchin uncovers a lost archive through a close-reading of newspaper accounts of violence against queer men in pre-Stonewall New York. The results are fascinating and disturbing. I love this book and think everyone should read it. It's going to win big prizes because honestly there is nothing like it. It's historical, but a page-turner and makes you care deeply (if you already didn't) about the lives of queer men who dared to love, cruise, and try to find community, when there was very little. Polchin weaves research from the era about sexuality and the made-up "homosexual panic," newspaper accounts that turned murder into lurid stories designed to sell copies, and well-known queer literary figures like James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and the often problematic Carl Van Vechten. Lastly, this is a perfect read for the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. It helped me understand why so many queer people rose up at this moment. They were tired of being policed, killed, and having their stories taken from them in service of a homophobic narrative.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Robert Sheard

    Covering the fifty years from the end of World War I to the Stonewall protests in 1969, this is a history of how the media, the medical profession (psychiatry specifically), and the legal system handled cases of violence against queer men. It's a hugely important topic, given the rise in recent years of violence against transgender people. Unfortunately, the book itself is deadly dull. It's written in a dry-as-dust academic tone and is mostly summary after summary of extremely similar newspaper Covering the fifty years from the end of World War I to the Stonewall protests in 1969, this is a history of how the media, the medical profession (psychiatry specifically), and the legal system handled cases of violence against queer men. It's a hugely important topic, given the rise in recent years of violence against transgender people. Unfortunately, the book itself is deadly dull. It's written in a dry-as-dust academic tone and is mostly summary after summary of extremely similar newspaper accounts of queer crime stories. Such a shame because the topic in the hands of a storyteller, could have created a much stronger impact on the lay-reader.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Bob Nadal

    A remarkable and disturbing look at the oppression of homosexuals from WWI through the 60s. James Polchin did an amazing job gathering together the psychiatry, journalism, entertainment and true crime stories from the era. He shows how they reinforced the rigid stereotypes, fears and hatred that continue through today.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Roy

    I am Amazed in Polchin's dedication to telling queer history and including the crimes aganist gay men in a time where LGBTQ rights did not exist to right before stonewall. A must read for those who love history and true crime.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Michael Kerr

    LGBTQ+ history is mostly invisible and largely lost. Here, Polchin uses an ingenious method to recover some of that history by analyzing American crime reports from the end of WWI to Stonewall. The result, however, is a somewhat harrowing litany of murder and mayhem, with the perpetrators frequently getting off, or getting reduced sentences, by claiming the victim made "indecent advances" toward them--and therefore the victim is the one to blame. Thank God this isn't the whole story, but it is d LGBTQ+ history is mostly invisible and largely lost. Here, Polchin uses an ingenious method to recover some of that history by analyzing American crime reports from the end of WWI to Stonewall. The result, however, is a somewhat harrowing litany of murder and mayhem, with the perpetrators frequently getting off, or getting reduced sentences, by claiming the victim made "indecent advances" toward them--and therefore the victim is the one to blame. Thank God this isn't the whole story, but it is definitely a part of the story and Polchin deserves recognition for highlighting the underlying state of terror LGBTQ+ people had to endure in our recent past.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    An engrossing, well-researched look at true crime and prejudicial treatment of gay men in the decades leading up to Stonewall. I found this book incredibly interesting but also very disturbing. The term "indecent advances" was often used in earlier decades as a defense in court by murderers of gay men; justification for why they acted out and killed as they did (by saying the victim made "indecent" or "improper advances" on them). All too often, the perpetrator/killer thus got off with a lighter An engrossing, well-researched look at true crime and prejudicial treatment of gay men in the decades leading up to Stonewall. I found this book incredibly interesting but also very disturbing. The term "indecent advances" was often used in earlier decades as a defense in court by murderers of gay men; justification for why they acted out and killed as they did (by saying the victim made "indecent" or "improper advances" on them). All too often, the perpetrator/killer thus got off with a lighter sentence for their crime, as courts almost saw them doing society a bit of a service by getting rid of those whom they deemed "sexual perverts". There were all manner of sneaky, creative crimes and set-ups during these earlier decades to ensnare LGBTQ people. Did you know that, after WWI, there were actually "stings" where straight members from the Navy/service were sent out to flirt with, then trap gay men in the cities? I did not know about this... insane and troubling. Polchin also delves into psychological studies and views of the time, where researchers and psychoanalysts would look at photos of young men and point out specific feminine features which could suggest the male was highly prone to being gay, or acting out on homosexual tendencies. In today's light, these observations seem ludicrous, but nonetheless, these were widely held tenets. As a member of the LGBTQ community, this was a troubling read for me occasionally. I love reading about true crime, but this felt like it hit close to home at times. It is important we understand and are aware of this shocking history so we are not doomed to repeat it. Despite how much I got into this, it was a touch dry at times, which is why I can't quite bump it to 4 stars, but anyone interested in both true crime and LGBTQ history might find this read worthwhile. (I did round it to 4 stars for Good Reads, which does not allow 1/2 stars.)

  7. 5 out of 5

    Corey Ledin-Bristol

    I am sorry to say it but this book was dull. You would think that such a topic would elicit some kind of emotions but the book us written in such a sterile, efficient style it comes across as someone just reading news articles.

  8. 4 out of 5

    One Sentence Reviews

    With a surgeon’s precision, Polchin excises “ripped from the headlines” stories of violence against gay men between the 1920s and 1960s, focusing heavily on the "what" but rarely the "why."

  9. 4 out of 5

    Aislinn

    The only indecent thing about this book is how criminally boring it is.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Stuart

    Grateful someone wrote this: important. But the coherence/readability of the writing style was not super engaging. More college thesis than popular Pinker-esque treatise. Again, important.

  11. 4 out of 5

    John Wood

    "How many more times must the innocent die and the guilty go free before the unsubstantiated claim of an 'indecent proposal' ceases to be an alibi for robbery and murder?" One magazine 1959 "There is no Negro problem except that created by Whites; no Jewish problem except that created by Gentiles; To which I add: and no homosexual problem except that created by heterosexual society." "The Homosexual in America" 1951 by Donald Webster Cory This is a brutal but important read. Society has traveled a l "How many more times must the innocent die and the guilty go free before the unsubstantiated claim of an 'indecent proposal' ceases to be an alibi for robbery and murder?" One magazine 1959 "There is no Negro problem except that created by Whites; no Jewish problem except that created by Gentiles; To which I add: and no homosexual problem except that created by heterosexual society." "The Homosexual in America" 1951 by Donald Webster Cory This is a brutal but important read. Society has traveled a long road to acceptance of LGBTQ people with several miles to go. The author cites many cases where the suspected murderers lured their victims and then claimed self defense because the victim acosted the,

  12. 4 out of 5

    Katie

    "Queer history has often focused on narratives of progress in which sexual minorities prosper despite the social injustices done to them. The progressive and affirmative narrative has made injury and violence historical realities we often write against, through an emphasis on community building, cultural expressions, and political activism. [...] But there is another story of queer experience, one that tries to recover encounters much deadlier than the ones Williams recorded in his journal. 'Mod "Queer history has often focused on narratives of progress in which sexual minorities prosper despite the social injustices done to them. The progressive and affirmative narrative has made injury and violence historical realities we often write against, through an emphasis on community building, cultural expressions, and political activism. [...] But there is another story of queer experience, one that tries to recover encounters much deadlier than the ones Williams recorded in his journal. 'Modern homosexual identity is formed out of and in relation to the experience of social damage, [...] paying attention to what was difficult in the past may tell us how far we have come, but that is not all it will tell us; it also makes visible the damage that we live with in the present.'"

  13. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Lawrence

    A man in the park asks another man for a match. The two strike up a conversation and head to a hotel room, giving false names at the desk because it's the 1900s and they ask for names at the desk. Cards are played, pants are removed, and one or the other is beaten to death. Times infinity. I like how Polchin compares salacious big city headlines with the headlines of the hometowns that these murderers and victims came from.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Marta

    Before this book, I had not been too familiar with this part of US history, and it was interesting to read about through analysis of related news articles. The tone is meticulously researched, but that also means it feels academic - more like reading a textbook. A worthwhile read.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Sarah - All The Book Blog Names Are Taken

    Books like this make my heart hurt because these crimes are still being committed against the LBGTQIA+ community. Here’s the deal: God doesn’t make mistakes, so if someone is gay, that is how He intended them to live, the end. Review to come.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Steven

    A study on the ways the criminal justice system and the media coded and approached crime against gay men in the years after WWI through the early 1960s. Polchin combed newspaper accounts and crime records to look at the different ways victimized gay men were described in the media, and how the court system (you couldn't really call it the justice system), with the support of some psychologists, protected their abusers and killers. Think of the "gay panic" defense. The stories get a bit repetitiv A study on the ways the criminal justice system and the media coded and approached crime against gay men in the years after WWI through the early 1960s. Polchin combed newspaper accounts and crime records to look at the different ways victimized gay men were described in the media, and how the court system (you couldn't really call it the justice system), with the support of some psychologists, protected their abusers and killers. Think of the "gay panic" defense. The stories get a bit repetitive, sadly, and the parade of violence is a bit much to take. Polchin not only looks at the media in the cities where many of these crimes took place, but looks at how the victims' fates were reported in their hometown papers, where terms like "bachelor" and "artist" and "handsome young man" might mean something to those who knew what to look for. In the worst cases, reporting on these crimes turned entire gay communities into scapegoats for concerns about "sex maniacs," where any sexual crime at all was laid at the feet of the local "perverts." It all seems so medieval and depressing, and unfortunately, is a mindset that still exists. A very interesting book with a lot of detailed research, but kind of hard to read.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Michael Ritchie

    (3-1/2 stars) The point the author makes here is interesting and important, about the way crimes against gay men were treated in the press, and how that accusation of "indecent advances" was used as an attempt to justify assault and murder. But much of the book is simply a presentation of case after case of these crimes. A little less of that and a little more context and/or theory, especially more coverage of the idea of "homosexual panic" as a defense--which continued at least into the 1990s-- (3-1/2 stars) The point the author makes here is interesting and important, about the way crimes against gay men were treated in the press, and how that accusation of "indecent advances" was used as an attempt to justify assault and murder. But much of the book is simply a presentation of case after case of these crimes. A little less of that and a little more context and/or theory, especially more coverage of the idea of "homosexual panic" as a defense--which continued at least into the 1990s--would have made this an even more interesting read.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Phantomrat

    As I sat here in June 2020 and read this book’s accounts of the social and political landscape of a post-WWI pre-Syonewall America and the media coverage of crimes perpetrated against gay men during that time, the most upsetting thing about the antisemitism, racism, homophobia, and jingoism of those years is the overwhelming the feeling that we are nowhere. A tough but worthwhile read.

  19. 4 out of 5

    AJ Burgin

    I really wanted to like this book, and I do, to a certain extent. The central claim is solid, but it feels like a journal article that got teased out into a full-length book. There’s a lot of repetition and some pretty shallow analysis that sometimes loses the through-line.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    Big disappointment for me... I was very excited about this book, as the topic is very important and, unfortunately, still accurate. Sadly, I found the writing style extremely dull, repetitive and cold. I expected more "big picture" content and less lists of facts. :(

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    Interesting topic, kind of dull reading. Would have preferred deeper dives into fewer cases

  22. 4 out of 5

    Gary Lukowski

    Interesting, very matter of fact. I am not sure I learned anything new. Perhaps a bigger context might have been attempted?

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ron Turner

    It peters out towards the end, but otherwise it's an interesting look at a forgotten world when homosexuality was criminalized and sensationalized.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Melinda Lewis

    Important history through the lens of true crime

  25. 4 out of 5

    Katie/Doing Dewey

    Summary: This included some interesting information, but was dry and disjointed. This is a history of the way gay men were criminalized from the 1920s through the Stonewall Riots in 1968. It describes the many biases in the way crimes committed by or against gay men were portrayed in the media during this time frame. It also discusses how gay rights groups began to track and mobilize around these injustices. Unfortunately, I could tell within twenty pages that I wasn't particularly going to enjoy Summary: This included some interesting information, but was dry and disjointed. This is a history of the way gay men were criminalized from the 1920s through the Stonewall Riots in 1968. It describes the many biases in the way crimes committed by or against gay men were portrayed in the media during this time frame. It also discusses how gay rights groups began to track and mobilize around these injustices. Unfortunately, I could tell within twenty pages that I wasn't particularly going to enjoy this book. The content was interesting and the author did a good job of making me feel I had the sense of each decade he discussed. However, he did that through a combination of disjointed true crime stories and discussion of attitudes towards homosexuality in the media; the medical professions; and the public at large. Transitions between these sections were pretty rough. The way the true crime stories were told was also quite dry. There were often gruesome details of murder scenes, but very few personal details to bring either victims or criminals to life. We were occasionally told how a crime was resolved, but never given any interesting details about investigations or trials. Part of the reason the stories were so dry may have to do with a larger problem this book suffered from - there simply doesn't seem to have been much information available for the author to work with. True crimes involving gay men were not explicitly reported as such. This meant that the author's conclusions for each decade were based on only a handful of anecdotes he found through difficult digging. I did find his interpretation of the crimes as involving gay men plausible. But I often thought he needed statistics on the crimes to back up his broader claims. Despite the problems with this book, I can't disagree with the author that these stories are an important part of gay history. I think it's worthwhile to be aware of how bad things were for gay men in the fairly recent past. I also thought that the way the gay community rallied around the egregious injustices reported here was fascinating and informative. I'm not sure another author could have done much better with this subject. I do think the writing could have been more engaging, but a lot of the problems seemed a result of the scant historical record. I'd only recommend this if you have a strong interest in the topic though and will be keeping an eye out for a better book on the subject myself.This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey

  26. 5 out of 5

    Vette M,

    I really tried to read this book, but it was so dull. The writing wasn't engaging and it just felt like he was listing cases that could've been attacks on or by gay men but you have to read between the lines of the language at that particular time period. The author lists cases were no perpetrator was ever found and then just moves onto another investigation. The ones he does try to give full detail about aren't that interesting to be honest. I was really hoping to find out more about the discri I really tried to read this book, but it was so dull. The writing wasn't engaging and it just felt like he was listing cases that could've been attacks on or by gay men but you have to read between the lines of the language at that particular time period. The author lists cases were no perpetrator was ever found and then just moves onto another investigation. The ones he does try to give full detail about aren't that interesting to be honest. I was really hoping to find out more about the discrimination gay men faced, the author does touch on this a little but not enough to keep my attention.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

  28. 5 out of 5

    John

  29. 4 out of 5

    Haley

  30. 4 out of 5

    Leah

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