What Did Anti-LGBTQ Violence Look Like Before Stonewall?

In an excerpt from his book, James Polchin traces the history of violence against the queer community.

Pictured above: An officer arrests a queer attendee at the National Variety Artists Exotic Carnival and Ball, NYC, 1962.

I was walking in Greenwich Village, just on the edge of Chelsea in New York City, on a humid summer night when a car slowed down on the other side of the street and two men inside screamed out “faggot!” The impact of the word forced me to tense up. The street was empty. The hour was late. I could feel my heart start to pound and the adrenaline build. I thought if I turned around and cut back to where I came from, I could get away from whatever might happen next. In making a move, I watched from the corner of my eye as the car idled. The next second, it pulled off in the opposite direction, laughter trailing behind. That laughter stayed with me for months.

That was several years ago, not long after I moved to the city. There are other encounters that linger in fragments in my memory. A sidewalk preacher in Chicago who pointed at me to a small crowd of listeners and exclaimed, “Too many sodomites in this city.” A group of teenage boys in a park in Washington, D.C. who laughed the word faggots as they walked past me and the guy I was dating at the time. A man on a quiet North London street shouting to his friend, “We got some gay boys here today,” as my husband and I walked along the sidewalk. He continued the verbal attack, shouting at us through the car window as they slowly drove alongside us, my husband and I looking straight ahead as we walked in silence as if nothing was happening.

Frederic Lewis
Gay Street in Greenwich Village, 1960.

Such moments stay with you over the years, temper your encounters on streets, making you aware of how dangerous an empty street can be for queer people. While each incident was overtaken with the flush of fear, later I was filled with anger and regret, wishing I had yelled something back at the words spat me. I knew their words were meant to do damage. They didn’t come at me with bats or fists. I wasn’t pushed to the ground and kicked and hammered and spit on, as so many others have been. I wasn’t left bleeding in my apartment, bruised or beaten into unconsciousness like some of my friends and friends of friends had experienced. I wasn’t hospitalized. I wasn’t murdered. But still, the words made clear that such brutal violence and injury was always possible, always lurking.

These experiences are not unusual for queer people in the U.S. in 2019. Many LGBTQ folks have experienced these kinds of encounters—or worse—at some point in their lives. The statics are clear. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program reports that there was one hate-related homicide of an LGBTQ person every week in the U.S. in 2017. That was an 86% increase from the previous year. While the current political rhetoric has certainly inflamed anti-queer violence, such violent prejudice and abuse also have a history.

For years, I’ve been researching queer true crimes in the decades before Stonewall. I had only encountered this history in small mentions in the many gay and lesbian histories that have been published in the past few decades. But these histories have often focused on stories of progress in which sexual minorities prosper despite the social injuries and prejudices done to them. This progressive story made acts of violence against queers a historical reality we often write against, through an emphasis on community building, cultural expression, and political activism. There was another story I wanted to uncover about the history of anti-queer violence that shapes so much of the prejudices and abuses we suffer today. What did this violence look like before the contemporary gay rights movement?

NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Police raid at the Stonewall Inn, 1969.

I went searching the newspapers for accounts of queer true crimes. Crime stories in the midcentury press were shocking entertainment, filled with salacious and gruesome details. And queer true crimes were overwhelmingly concerned with the normalcy and deviancy of American men. In these articles, I encountered men found murdered in hotel rooms, apartments, public parks, and subway bathrooms. I witnessed accounts of brutal violence between roommates, sailors and civilians, young men and older men, working-class men and their wealthy companions. Many of the victims were married men, living their sexual lives in secret rendezvous, under false names to hide their identities. Others were clearly living as homosexual men, single or partnered, participating in the queer worlds that were emerging in many cities across the country in the years after World War I.

Not surprisingly, I found that the crime reports were mostly stories about encounters between white men. When men of color were present in the mainstream press, they were usually, if not always, the killers of the white men they met, reflecting how the crime pages embodied the broader racial segregation of the times. These stories, filled with the shocking and salacious prose of the midcentury press, filled my waking and dreaming life with grotesque and poignant details I found hard to shake.

As much as I uncovered these queer true crime stories from decades before Stonewall, I was also brought back to the present. Claims of a homosexual panic defense, that dubious psychological theory, first appeared in newspaper crime stories in the 1930s. Drawing on the theories first developed at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., in the years just after WWI, this defense would increasingly appear in the courtroom and the press as a viable argument to justify homicide.

Arrests at the National Variety Artists Exotic Carnival and Ball, NYC, 1962.

I also found how, by the 1940s, defendants increasingly claimed the queer victim made “indecent advances” or “improper advances” prompting a violent response. It is in this moment of postwar America when the idea of a violent rebuke of queer men became a defining characteristic of masculine, normal heterosexuality. But I also found in this history how early gay rights groups in the 1950s looked at the crime pages for examples of prejudice and discrimination in the courtroom and the press that fueled their own claims and radical ideas that homosexuals constituted a unique social minority.

While the 50 year legacy of Stonewall reminds us that life for many queer citizens is dramatically different today than it was in the decades before queers took to the streets on that June evening, we also confront how that history still lingers. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” James Baldwin wrote in the 1950s with respect to racism, pointing to the ways people enact their prejudices within a historical practice that we are rarely conscious of. This idea of history and identity is also useful for anti-queer prejudice and violence, as well. The history of queer true crime tells us much about where we have come, and how much we still have to confront.

James Polchin’s new book, Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall (Counterpoint), is available now.

James Polchin is a writer, cultural historian, and a clinical professor in Liberal Studies at New York University.