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 gay 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.
About James Polchin
JAMES POLCHIN, PhD, has taught at the Princeton Writing Program, the Parsons School of Design, the New School for Public Engagement, and the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. A clinical professor at New York University, he lives in New York City with his husband, the photographer Greg Salvatori. Indecent Advances is his first book.
Praise for Indecent Advances
“Insightful . . . Will likely delight true crime fans and satisfy academics.” —Publishers Weekly
“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
“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 Snares 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
“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
“James Polchin has written a vital, masterful corrective on American sex crime that redefines who the criminal was. 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
“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