Friday, March 26, 2010

Gay Panic--No, It's Not the Latest Dance Craze

Note: This blog also appears on the outstanding true crime blog, In Cold Blog. Check it out daily for news and writing from top true crime writers, advocates, journalists, and criminal justice professionals.

A few days ago, I was having dinner with friends in West Seattle. One of my friends had a sister who had happened to appear on the Jenny Jones show (remember her?) back in the day. Her sister was on a makeover program called something like, "Don't Mean to Be Rude, But You Look Like a Dude" and featured makeovers of women who dressed like men or who were otherwise masculine in appearance. I won't even go into the political correctness of the show's topic, but the reason I'm bringing it up now is something my friend remembered about her sister's appearance on the show: they were very, very careful about not mentioning anything at all about most of the guests being lesbian, and any mention of homosexuality, period, was edited out of the final show.

We all knew why Jones and her staff tiptoed around the love that dared not speak its name. If you recall, the Jenny Jones show was sued years ago and made nationwide headlines when Ms. Jones did a show on secret crushes and a young man announced his crush on another young man, Jonathan Schmitz. Schmitz was not flattered, in fact he shot and killed his not-so-secret admirer.

Which brings us to gay panic, a term that could have been used by defense attorneys in this case.

What is gay panic? Well, today we're all lucky to have the author of a new book on the subject with us to tell us all about the phenomenon. David McConnell has written two novels, The Silver Hearted and The Fire Brat. But it's his forthcoming book, Gay Panic: True Stories of Straight Men Who Kill Gay Men that I wanted to draw your attention to. David was kind enough to take time out of his work to answer a few questions for In Cold Blog, on the phenomenon itself and why he wrote the book. The interview below is fascinating reading; I can't imagine how much more fascinating the book will be when it debuts later this year from Alyson Books.

RR: For those of us who don't know, why don't you start off by  defining the term "gay panic."

DM: People  familiar with the term know it as a defense strategy in murder and  assault cases. A straight guy will claim he just freaked out when some gay guy came on to him. It's probably been a winking  legal strategy for ages, for as long as homosexuality has been  considered sinister and predatory. It also involves a boys-will-be-boys  tolerance for violence on the part of presumably virtuous young men.  More often than not the defense is a sham. Lawyers use it to disguise  prostitution on the one hand and hate crimes on the other. It was  explicitly disallowed in the Matthew Shepard murder trial, for instance.  In a broader sense "Gay Panic"  can refer to a whole spectrum of psychological responses experienced by  straight men (or men who want or need desperately to be straight) when  they find themselves in a sexual situation with another man (or a  situation they perceive as sexual). 

RR: What  inspired you to write a book about this topic?
DM: It  was a subject that was all over the news and in the air, but it hadn't  been looked at closely in the way only a writer is able to do. The  reporting that existed on the subject was wildly inaccurate, in part  because TV and newspapers are simply not frank when it comes to sex  (" the victim acted suggestively." What exactly does that  mean?) In equal part, I think, the inaccuracy stems from the way the gay community politicizes these cases. I'm gay myself, but I just wanted to tell the stories. I  don't know what it says about me, but I found I'm able to look at this  material with a pretty cold eye. Paradoxically, that's how you achieve  an authentically humane treatment. I'm basically a fiction writer, so I  report the story in the most artistic way I can. I think the moral and  political conclusions are obvious enough that readers don't have to be  led by the nose.

RR: How did you decide whom to  include in the book?

DM: It's been really hard.  I've stuck with American murder cases of the recent past. The earliest  is '95, the latest, last year. Because I go into incredible depth and  detail I think I'll only have room for five or six in the end. I hoped  to get a snapshot of the entire country, so I picked cases from all  over. I didn't want to be limited by any strict definition of "Gay Panic." What I was really  interested in was anything that illuminated a violent clash of "straight  culture" and "gay culture." One of my stories  isn't a true "gay panic"  case at all, more like a calculated gay  assassination. Ideally, I wanted something that would be fascinating for  young straight guys to read, but I think it's too soon to expect many  of them even to dare picking up a book with "gay"  in the title. We're getting there, though. The reason I was thinking  about straight guys is that "gay panic" is something that takes place in their minds. I  want them and everyone to think about it. I started out with the common  assumption that most of these killers were probably gay  deep down and just couldn't deal with it. Who else would get so  upset? Curiously enough, cases like that seem to be rare. Only one of  the murderers I write about turned out to be gay,  and though he kidded himself, he wasn't actually unaware of it. He led  simultaneous lives in gay porn, hustling and  rabidly anti-gay skinhead gang activity. Turning  tricks by day, gay-bashing by night. But every  other killer really is or was straight. Ultimately, "straight culture"  and "gay culture" just exist our heads. I wanted  to tell these stories for everybody.

RR: We hear a lot  these days about gay hate crimes. How does gay panic fit in with the  current dialogue?

DM: They're the same thing. "Gay Panic" is just a hate  crime where you believe or claim you started out as a victim. That said,  I'm not much of a political thinker. I imagine myself as more like the  artist whose highest duty is as a researcher for the culture as a whole.  Others can argue and interpret the "evidence" the artist comes up with.

RR: What measures do you think could have been taken to prevent these  instances of gay panic?

DM: What  I've been doing is harrowing in a way, re-imagining these crimes in  great detail. I'm not at all experienced with "True Crime" writing and  I've approached the whole thing as a student and with a huge sense of  responsibility. One thing that strikes me as I write is that I keep  experiencing a very human response to disaster: after the fact, it feels  both absurdly contingent--unlikely, even--at the same time it feels  inevitable. Politically, socially there may have been things to do to  prevent these crimes, but I've been looking at them as human dramas. In a  perfect world there'd be no crime at all and no one would ever be hurt.

RR: What can we, as a society, do to lessen the occurrence of instances of gay panic in the future?

DM: As  a legal defense "gay panic"  is probably on the way out. Judges and juries don't have much patience  for it anymore. Look at the judge's decision in the Shepard case. On the  other hand it's incredibly prevalent overseas still. As a phenomenon  I'm not sure how much we can do about it. The hopeful answer is to be  honest and explicit about the crimes themselves, exactly what I'm trying  to do in the book. A darker view is that there's nothing to do.  Even  if the whole notion of "gay panic"  could be taken out of the equation (say, in a world without prejudice),  maybe these crimes would occur in exactly the same way and simply be  called something different. Almost all crime is attributable to young  men. When you take away the lurid sexual content, these crimes are the  quintessential crimes of a young man's identity: his honor,  self-respect, pride, self-image. It's hard to imagine preventing them  without changing the nature of manhood.

RR: Tell the nice  people where they can buy your book.

DM: It's  appearing later this year from Alyson Books. It should be available  everywhere.

Thank you, David. For more on David and the book, visit his website. You can preorder David's book from Amazon here.

[Photo of the author by Everett McCourt]

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  1. Wow, I have to say beyond that Jenny Jones case I've never really heard about this, but living in Canada, maybe we don't hear it so much.

    I'd be curious if a man asked a lesbian woman on a date and she killed him could she claim "straight panic"? With these kind of weird claims every time you turn it around you suddenly realize how utterly stupid the concept is.

    Sounds like an interesting topic for a book. Good luck when it comes out.

  2. This is a subject that has hit close to home for me. I can't wait to read this book. Excellent interview.