Crimes Against Sexuality

How true crime stories were used to fan the flames of homophobia—and let killers get away with murder

The Internet Archive
The Internet Archive

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.

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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