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. You can follow him at @jamespolchin.
Praise for Indecent Advances
“[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
“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)
“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
“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 Advances inspires 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