Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall

Written by James Polchin
Review by Sarah Hendess

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.

Polchin catalogues true-crime stories of murders of queer men to show how society justified and normalized violence against the LGBTQ community from World War I through the 1960s—and how society today continues to grapple with this legacy.

I have no significant criticisms of this book, only a couple caveats. First, this book is not light reading. Polchin describes these murders in graphic, heartbreaking detail. Even the most stoic reader will find the subject matter emotionally difficult. Second, through no fault of the author, this is mostly the story of queer white men. Mainstream newspapers of this era generally wrote about men of color only when they were the defendants in a case of violent crime. As such, stories of crime against queer men of color were unknown to the public at large.

As we approach the Stonewall anniversary and as anti-LGBTQ violence still occurs “with alarming and brutal frequency,” as Polchin writes, Indecent Advances should be required reading. Highly recommended.