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.
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. You can follow him at @jamespolchin.
CrimeReads, One of the Month’s Best True Crime Books BookMarks, 1 of 5 Reviews You Need to Read This Week
“To shed light on these killings, the social conditions and psychological conflicts that gave rise to them, and the manipulative and sensationalist coverage that they often received in the press, the cultural historian James Polchin has written Indecent Advances, a grisly, sobering, comprehensively researched new history. The subject matter doesn’t make for light reading; Polchin admits to feeling ‘haunted’ by what he discovered in archives. But it’s impossible to understand gay life in twentieth-century America without reckoning with the dark stories. Gay men were unable to shake free of them until they figured out how to tell the stories themselves, in a new way.” —Caleb Cain, The New Yorker
“[A] fascinating new book on the treatment of gay men in true crime and crime fiction [that] reexamines the violence that people at the Stonewall Inn had faced every day, and the rage crackling up underneath . . . What makes Polchin’s readings stand out is the way he pursues an underlying story across several seemingly separate crimes.” —Alexander Chee, The New Republic
“Indecent Advances collects and rescues significant gay history and goes a long way toward clarifying why we fight, what we fight for and how prejudice is an historically institutional force.” —Tom Cardamone, Lambda Literary
“Polchin (liberal studies, New York Univ.) presents a reflective, thoughtful first book that perfectly blends true crime and the history of discrimination against gay men in the 20th century . . . His insightful history of crimes perpetrated against gay men is essential for social history fans. Readers who enjoy well-researched, deliberate social commentary will appreciate Polchin’s enlightening and descriptive style.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“For readers searching for a fast-paced, meticulously researched, thoroughly engaging (and often infuriating) look-see into the systematic criminalization of gay men and widespread condemnation of homosexuality post-World War I, cultural historian James Polchin’s first book, Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall, is a smart bet.” —Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle
“Beginning in the years before the Stonewall Riots, Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall by James Polchin takes a look at the crimes committed against gay men, long before equality and rights were a notion, let alone even being on the table. Murder, of course, lines the pages of this book but you’ll also read stories of harassment, assault and minor crimes that were embellished so that they could be charged as more serious. Polchin also looks at how criminal acts committed by and aimed at LGBT people came under controversy when attention was paid to one minority group’s safety and not to that of another group. This, the embedded presence of many (in)famous criminals, and other stories lightly linked to Stonewall make it an interesting book.” —Washington Blade
“Polchin recounts the cases as a series of short thrillers organized by decade through the 20th century. These true stories remain suspenseful episodes of surprising brutality and sensationalized press. Polchin pays scholarly attention to the politics of each era, and tales that were once grisly exploitation of murder victims become tense examinations of journalism and detective work.” —Devlyn Camp, Chicago Reader
“Polchin’s harrowing account of the history of violence against queer men hits shelves on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. It’s perfect timing for a book that dives deep into these never-before-told true crimes, and looks at the power mainstream messaging had on both the violence and the mounting resistance. Resurrecting a forgotten era of queer history, Polchin masterfully weaves brutal true crime research with critical analysis of the social history, exploring the way the media and nascent psychological theories were weaponizing prejudice and perpetuating a deviant stereotype of gay men.” —Camille LeBlanc, Literary Hub, One of the Most Anticipated Books of the Summer
“[A] harrowing account of the history of violence against queer men . . . It’s perfect timing for a book that dives deep into these never-before-told true crimes, and looks at the power mainstream messaging had on both the violence and the mounting resistance. Resurrecting a forgotten era of queer history, Polchin masterfully weaves brutal true crime research with critical analysis of the social history, exploring the way the media and nascent psychological theories were weaponizing prejudice and perpetuating a deviant stereotype of gay men.” —CrimeReads, One of the Most Anticipated Crime Books of Summer
“Polchin’s deep dive into the history leading up to the riots underscores the difficulty of telling a story that’s so bound up in myth—and the importance of doing it anyway . . . Polchin pulls the lives out of the archives with relentless precision in his book. The particularity of Polchin’s accounts restores some honor to the memory of the men whose brutal stories tell.” —Jason Tougaw, Electric Literature
“James Polchin wants us to have the specifics. His book Indecent Advances, published this month by Counterpoint, collects and analyzes news reports of gay-related crime from the 1920s to the 1960s. The result is an act of witnessing that will reconfigure anyone who came of age after Stonewall. Once we know all this, we have to reckon differently with our country . . . It’s almost unbearable to see this pattern of shame and violence so clearly laid out. How do we cope with these victims, who were only guilty of trying to exist? How do we accept that many of these murderers seem to have been gay men themselves, warped by self-loathing until they massacred their own? It’s beyond weeping. To his credit, Polchin never commands us to weep. His writing is unvarnished and unsentimental as he takes us chronologically through these decades of crime, and when the facts need context, he clearly explains how scientific, religious, and political forces of the time helped endorse these murders. And while there are moments when he allows himself some tart editorializing, he doesn’t linger over his own outrage. Instead, he trusts the details will make us angry on their own. In his wallop of a conclusion, though, Polchin does describe being haunted by his own research, as well as being deeply moved.” —Mark Blankenship, The Blotter
“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
“Polchin’s extraordinarily well-researched account offers a valuable contribution to both social and previously neglected gay history.” —Booklist
“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 Advancesinspires 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 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