How True-Crime Stories Reveal the Overlooked History of Pre-Stonewall Violence Against Queer PeopleRoundup
tags: Stonewall, homophobia, LGBTQIA history, Pride Month
James Polchin is the author of Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall, available now.
In a 1954 newspaper article about the murder of a man named Anthony Lankford, two sentences had been underlined: The sailor charged with the crime “had admitted meeting Lankford at a bar on Friday night.” It continued, “He said the two had several drinks and then went to Lankford’s apartment.”
The man who had presumably underlined the sentence was the writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, in whose papers, held at Yale, I had found a scrapbook containing a series of articles about the crime. And while the words he chose to highlight might seem innocuous on their own, they are in fact a key clue to what this story is really about — and to a troubling truth about life for queer Americans at the time.
Van Vechten was a pivotal figure in American modernism, and an early promoter of African-American writers and artists in the 1920s and 1930s, known for escorting his white bohemian friends into the jazz clubs of Harlem, and in turn bringing African American artists and writers into the downtown salons of Greenwich Village at a time when such racial crossings were rare. He was also a man of sexual crossing. While he was married twice, the second marriage lasting until his death, his homosexuality was a well-known open secret.
Van Vechten was known for his collecting, and the scrapbooks I was looking at were filled with the ephemera of queer life in midcentury New York, including fliers from drag balls, advertisements for queer novels, homoerotic collages and a number of crime stories clipped from the newspapers, including the articles about Lankford’s death.
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