Why Do They Strike Us?

Over the past two years since the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie Wyoming, the
c i rcumstances of his death have held a symbolic place in the story of violence against gay men
and lesbians nationally. University of Wyoming Professor Beth Loffreda’s book Losing Matt Shepard:
Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder is on the “Lambda Book Report” best-sellers list and
MTV has recently premiered “Anatomy of a Hate Crime: The Matthew Shepard Story” that dramatized
the events of October 6th, 1998. The telling and retelling of Shepard’s murder in both academic books
and popular culture suggests the extent to which the story of violence against homosexuals has centered
the politics of sexuality at the turn of the century. How to make sense of Shepard’s murder has become a
national concern for people from a range of political persuasions. The interpretation of violence remains
a compelling story — a story that reveals larger cultural and political concerns.
Three months before Shepard’s murder, I began researching stories of violence against gay men
in a period well before Matthew Shepard, before Stonewall, and even before the Mattachine Society. In
gathering stories of violence from the 1930s and 1940s for my dissertation, “‘Why Do They Strike Us?’:
Representing Violence and Sexuality, 1930-1950,” I have been researching how journalists and novelists
write about acts of murder and assault against homosexual men during a historical period when
homosexuality was emerging more predominately within US culture. I focus on stories of violence
because they have so often been left out of the histories of sexuality. I wish to consider how such stories
participated in the construction of homosexuality within the public consciousness of the period. In this
effort, my research has been less concerned with the acts of violence per se (what was done and how it
was done), than in how those acts of violence were interpreted and invested with cultural meanings
through their narrative representations. This emphasis on the cultural rendering of acts of violence was
particularly influenced by the events of October 1998, suggesting the very dynamic nature of any
historical research. What that contemporary event showed me as I was scanning newspapers and
archives was that the story of violence against homosexuals is rarely an innocent one, but rather
contains a host of cultural meanings, interpretations and values about the nature (and limits) of
sexuality and gender, as well as race and class status.
One popular representation of homosexuality in the 1930s and 1940s was that of the criminal
gay man, which served to concentrate a number of imagined threats to the sexual and social order of
the nation. Such representations of both working-class and upper-class homosexuals appear in literary
works of the 1930s by writers such as Raymond Chandler, James Cain, James Farrell, and William
Faulkner. For example, Chandler’s highly successful first two novels, The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell
My Lovely (1940), center on the murder of a wealthy, homosexual man, and in doing so cast such
figures as the symbolic center of a morally corrupted Los Angeles. For Chandler, the dead homosexual
body stands as the justifiable ends to legal, social, and sexual transgressions.
Yet the story of violence and homosexuality is not limited to these criminal figures in literary
works. In newspaper accounts, the threat of violent homosexuals emerged as an attack on heterosexual
integrity that gave birth to the rhetoric of “improper advance.” Beginning with such sensationalized
newspaper accounts as the prison murder of Richard Loeb (of the infamous Leopold and Loeb duo) in
June 1934, the “improper advance” defense took on increasing significance through the ’30s and ’40s
as a justifiable and explanatory logic for violence against homosexuals. Loeb’s death made the front
pages of every city daily and held the national attention for several weeks as more information about
his death and his killer were revealed. The coverage offered the first widely circulated report of a
“homosexual panic” defense that Loeb’s killer successfully deployed in his trial.
By the 1940s the “improper advance” became a crucial cultural narrative in a number of
newspaper accounts. For example, when Lucien Carr, close friend of Beat writer Jack Kerouac, stabbed
to death a homosexual in Riverside Park in 1944, his claim of an “improper advance” was widely
reported in New York newspapers
and tabloids. Carr was only 19
and a student at Columbia
University when he murdered his
33-year old acquaintance David
Kammerer. The New York Daily
News characterized the murder as
an “honor killing”-however, the
nature of the honor was not made clear.
When Canadian business executive Cameron MacKellar was murdered in his Waldorf-
Astoria suite in the fall of 1948 by the out-of-work, 19-year-old Ralph Edward Barrows, the New
York Times featured the story on the front page and ran follow-up coverage for nearly three
months. The wealthy MacKellar, who the article described as “a distinguished looking man . .
.and to all appearance a thorough conservative,” was juxtaposed with the delinquency of the
unemployed youth, thus framing the story of murder within clearly defined class lines. Barrows’
confession of attacking MacKellar because he made “improper advances” situated the murder
within a host of social deviancies including juvenile delinquency and working-class idleness.
While such accounts reflect larger, national anxieties about the threats of Communists and
homosexuals that emerged in the post-World War II era, they also mark a genealogy of the
“homosexual panic” rhetoric, which, as Shepard’s case clearly demonstrated, continues to
structure the boundaries of intimacy between all men.
By the middle to late 1940s stories of violence were, for the first time in the literature of
the US, exploring the social marginalization of homosexuals with that of other minority groups.
In Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two, historian Allen
Bérubé notes that “popular magazines and novels [in the post-war years] began to publicize the
notion that homosexuals constituted a persecuted ‘minority.'” Stories of violence in such novels
as Richard Brooks’s The Brick Foxhole (1946) and Michael deForrest’s The Gay Year (1949),
constructed homosexuals as minorities by aligning them with the suffering experienced by Jews
and African Americans. In The Gay Year, for example, the fairly flamboyant character Harold is
beaten up by a gang of boys in Greenwich Village. His friend Joe didn’t need to hear the story,
because as the narrator declares: “he knew well enough what had happened to Harold. One of
those gangs of boys that cruise the streets at night had jumped him and robbed him.
Sometimes they waited to ‘beat up the fairies,’ sometimes ‘a nigger with a wad of dough.’ There
were always three or four of them, and they usually half killed their victims. He had seen them
roaming the Village late at night, . . . waitin’ for the fairies to fly out’ dragging on limp cigarettes
set muggishly in their mouths. It was their sport and their ‘crusade.'” Such scenes offered an
alternative cultural narrative of homosexuals as a threat to the sexual and social order, by
asserting the notion that homosexuals, like other minorities, are victims of violent, social discriminations.
The stories we tell about violent acts against homosexuals offer more than the “truth”
about the events. How such acts are interpreted, told and retold in newspapers, magazines,
books, and on television hold complex and profound meaning for the ways we come to
understand and resist such violent acts against sexual minorities. Whose assault or murder gets
national attention? How are such stories of violence informed by larger cultural anxieties about
sexuality, gender, race and class? How do these stories construct an image of the homosexual?
These are question I continue to pursue.

James Polchin was the
1999-2000 recipient of
the James D. Woods III
Fellowship, which
recognized the promising
work on his dissertation,
“Why Do They Strike Us?:
Representing Violence and
Sexuality, 1930-1950.”
Polchin is a PhD
candidate in the American
Studies Program at New
York University, and may
be reached at
Jrp8414@is.nyu.edu for
further inquires about his
work.