On June 28, 1969, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn rebelled against a police raid and lit the spark for the gay liberation movement. Stonewall patrons were among the poorest and most marginalized people in society: the queens and queers who tended not to show up in the papers of record, because society would have preferred that they didn’t exist at all. But when queer existence was acknowledged, it was criminalized—and never so explicitly as in the true crime stories that exploded in popularity after World War I. Newspapers reported on the murder of men by other men in lurid detail, and breathlessly repeated the suspect’s defenses—that he was driven to violence by the victim’s “indecent advances,” to which the only appropriate response was murder. James Polchin joins us on the podcast to discuss how these stories shaped the public imagination about “deviant” behavior, and were fuel for homophobic discrimination from the sex panics of the 1930s to the Lavender Scare of the 1950s—and even today, when queer and trans people are still subjected to conversion therapy and newspapers underreport the murders of trans women of color.
Go beyond the episode:
- James Polchin’s Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall
- Peruse the scrapbooks of Carl Van Vechten, which inspired Polchin’s work, through the digital collection of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale
- Read an interview with artist William E. Jones, whose 2007 film Tearoom presents 1962 police surveillance footage of an Ohio crackdown on “homosexual depravity,” as the local Mansfield News Journal reported
- Watch the just-released PBS series The Lavender Scare, about the FBI campaign to fire tens of thousands of queer government workers for their sexuality (and presumed communist sympathies)
Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek. Follow us on Twitter @TheAmScho or on Facebook.
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