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Living and dying in the shadows

New York Daily News logo New York Daily News 23/06/2019 Jacqueline Cutler
an old photo of a man in a suit and tie © Provided by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

The world treated them like criminals. And that made them victims. In an America where their very existence was illegal, gays were forced into dangerous shadows. At a time when being out meant being arrested, lonely men looked for love in dark parks, public bathrooms, and Times Square bars. Often, they only met their murderers.

James Polchin’s “Indecent Advances” tells the grim tale. Advertised as “A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall,” it focuses on what it meant to be a gay man in the first half of the 20th century: A target. Polchin begins his story after World War I, as millions of American soldiers and sailors returned home, ready to celebrate. The Jazz Age was starting, and young men were eager to join the party.

Having defeated a foreign threat, though, the American establishment now turned its attention to domestic ones. While the government hunted down political subversives, police departments and the armed forces searched for “sexual deviants.”

That crusade pushed the propaganda that gay men were dangerous perverts, eager to molest children and recruit innocent youths. It fed a paranoia that justified almost any action against them, from legal entrapment to brutal vigilantism.

In 1919, worried about corrupting influences, the Navy asked sailors to catch off-base seducers by going undercover. Some were even urged to go under the covers. In Newport, R.I., sailors were told that just going home with a man wasn’t enough. Only a “full act” would guarantee a conviction.

© Provided by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services The practice was eventually dropped, but only because of public outrage at what good clean American boys were being asked to do. Ridding the streets of homosexuals was still seen as a moral crusade. It was a growing one, too. In New York in 1918, there were 238 arrests for homosexual solicitation.

Within two years, that number more than tripled. Police regularly raided bars in Greenwich Village. Sweeps of Bryant Park, a popular cruising spot, were common. Being gay in public was a crime. But being gay in private could be fatal.

The stories were grisly. In 1933 in Paterson, N.J., Lawrence Shead, a movie-theater manager, was found in his apartment, beaten to death with an electric iron. When the killer was nabbed, he claimed self-defense. Shead had made a pass, the killer explained.

New Jersey declined to prosecute, allowing the suspect to be extradited to Louisiana, where he was wanted for killing a wealthy businessman. In that case, though, robbery, not sexuality, was seen as the motive. The suspect was convicted and hung for that crime. Getting away with murder was possible. The message was clear: Gay lives don’t matter.

In 1945, ballroom dancer Burt Harger disappeared from his Manhattan apartment. Then his body started showing up, in pieces. Police arrested his roommate, who confessed to killing Harger with a hammer and cutting him up in the bathtub. He said he’d just thrown the last piece, the torso, off the Staten Island ferry.

a group of people sitting at a table © Provided by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services The reason for this gruesome crime? Harger came on to him, the roommate said. Convicted of manslaughter, his sentence was 10 to 20 years. It practically became a pattern. In 1948, there was a rash of hotel room murders in New York: a merchant seaman in Times Square, an NBC executive in Albany and a Canadian businessman in the Waldorf-Astoria. Nothing connected the crimes, except the perpetrators’ excuse: Self-defense. The other guy made a pass.

Some prosecutors pushed back, insisting these were premeditated crimes. Robbery was the underlying crime; smart thieves knew that gay men were reluctant to go to the police. Prosecutors argued that these were cold-hearted killers, taking advantage of their victims’ own isolation. Yet juries sympathized with the killers.

For example, the victim at the Waldorf-Astoria, Colin MacKellar, always stayed at the posh hotel when he was in town. He also always drank at the bar, known as a discreet pick-up joint. One night the middle-aged MacKellar befriended a hunky 19-year-old patron. After several rounds, the older man invited the younger one to his room. The teenager beat MacKellar to death. Then he went to the movies.

When arrested, the suspect’s defense was the older man propositioned him. He was just protecting himself, the teen insisted. That might have gotten him released, too, if the prosecutors didn’t discover the kid had a long history of haunting bars, meeting older men, and robbing them. Even then, he, too, was only convicted of manslaughter.

The homophobia grew, convincing many Americans that the scariest problem wasn’t gay bashing, but gays. In 1954, a handsome airline steward, William Simpson, was found in a lover’s lane in North Miami, shot to death. His wallet was missing. Police eventually arrested two young men.

Gallery: The world's most infamous cold cases (Espresso)

They admitted to “rolling” gay men, first hitchhiking along Biscayne Boulevard, then robbing whoever gave them a lift. “Getting money from perverts,” they called it. The defendant who shot Simpson said he panicked, thinking the man was going to rape him. The press and public couldn’t help but sympathize – with the defendants.

“Good Guys – Not Toughs” the Miami Daily News editorialized. “5,000 Here Perverts, Police Say” the Miami Herald reported. Other stories warned of a secret colony of sexual deviants. Politicians vowed to “run them out of town.” Once again, the defendants were convicted only of manslaughter.

Even when people worried about crimes against gay men, they weren’t concerned about the victims. No, people were far more concerned with gays in the neighborhoods bringing down property values. And they feared how homosexuals endangered heterosexuals.

In 1955, in his syndicated column “Dream Street,” Robert Sylvester churned out hard-boiled prose about a rapidly decaying Times Square, home to sleazy bars and short-stay hotels. “The Bird Circuit,” he called it, were gay hangouts where thugs waited for gay men to pick them up, go back to their rooms and rob them.

It was a terrible thing, Sylvester wrote because it put truly innocent people at risk. “It probably isn’t important if a homo is roughed up by some hoodlum,” he concluded. “The important thing is that when there are no available homos, any unprotected citizen makes a satisfactory substitute.”

Gallery: The FBI's most notorious cases (Photo Services)

By the ’50s, some gay activists, notably the members of the Mattachine Society, began to push for acceptance. The movement grew. In 1967, after the police raided the Black Cat Tavern in San Francisco, supporters politely protested. Two years later, when cops tried the same thuggish tactics at the Stonewall Inn, patrons fought back in the streets.

Times were changing. When the Supreme Court ruled, in 1972, that state governments could refuse to employ homosexuals, a Daily News editorial agreed but made a modest plea for tolerance from private employers. "Fairies, nancies, swishes, fags, lezzes – call 'em what you please – should of course be permitted to earn an honest living," the editorial stated. Compared to some attitudes, this was practically liberal.

The cries for real liberation were growing louder. As Stonewall proved, gay people were no longer worried about what was permitted. Instead, they were intent on what was owed. They were no longer going to be quiet and ashamed, they were determined to be loud and proud. And that pride, already on display, will be on the march next Sunday.

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