The Story Of Hate Gay Men Faced Before Stonewall Changed Everything

The Stonewall uprising is often pointed to as marking the start of the modern gay rights movement – the crime pages offer us a window into the kinds of dangers queer citizens suffered in the years before.

Just after midnight, on a humid August night in 1954, the body of William Simpson, an Eastern Airlines flight attendant, was discovered in North Miami in an area known as Lovers’ Lane. According to press reports, he was lying in the middle of a sandy road in a “pool of blood.” He had a gunshot wound on his left side and “severe lacerations on his hand and right index finger.” His wallet was missing, and there were two sets of footprints leading away from the body.

Raised in Kentucky, Simpson served in the military from 1945 to 1947, and had attended college before moving to Miami to work for the airlines. The press would describe him as “handsome” and a “refined and pleasant man.”

Five days later, police arrested nineteen-year-old Charles Lawrence and twenty-year-old Lewis Richard Killen for the murder. Lawrence was hitchhiking along Biscayne Boulevard when Simpson offered him a ride. In the car Lawrence claimed “Simpson attempted to make advances,” a claim not unfamiliar in such crime stories in the era that often blamed the queer victims for the brutal assault they suffered. The press reported that Lawrence “resisted the homosexual proposals,” but after Simpson persisted, Lawrence pulled out a .22 caliber Beretta and shot Simpson.

At the trial three months later, Killen offered a much different motivation for the killing, recounting that the two “engaged in the practice of ‘rolling’ men for their money” (a euphemism for robbery) by hitchhiking along Biscayne Boulevard. While both Lawrence and Killen admitted they were targeting queer men in a scheme to blackmail and rob them, Lawrence maintained he accidentally shot Simpson “because I was afraid he would attack me sexually.” The two were eventually found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, and sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Ironically, the murder of Simpson prompted a panic in Miami about its queer communities. A Miami Daily News claimed the police investigation into Simpson’s murder uncovered a “colony of some 500 male homosexuals” living in the Miami area. The Miami Herald would increase that number to 5,000 “perverts” fanning fears of a growing epidemic of perversion. Such press reports prompted area municipalities to increase its policing and coordinated raids of bars and public spaces where queer men were known to socialize. “We intend to eliminate the gathering of perverts at certain night spots in Miami,” the city manager told the press, “and at any other places where they congregate.”

Simpson’s murder is just one example of how queer men were subject to injury and violence in the decades before the Stonewall uprising – that series of protests against police raids at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich village in the summer of 1969. That event is often pointed to as marking the start of the modern gay rights movement. The crime pages offer us a window into the kinds of dangers queer citizens suffered in the years before Stonewall. We witness sensationalised and coded accounts of men found murdered in hotel rooms and apartments, public toilets and parks, and, like Simpson, along desolate roads. Drawing on the perceived threats of homosexuals, assailants often claimed self-defence in such crimes, playing on the prejudices of the court and juries to secure a lesser verdict and sentence.

Because queer citizens were criminalised, they were venerable to all manner of robbery, abuse, and injury. It was unlikely the victims would ever go to the police for fear of being arrested for disorderly conduct or, more damning, sodomy – a felony offence across the country. The playwright Tennessee Williams recounted in his journal in 1943 how an encounter with a man he brought back to his room quickly turned violent. He threatened Williams with physical harm as he rummaged through his things. “He finally despaired of finding any portable property of value,” Williams recorded, adding he left “with the threat that any time he saw me he would kill me. I felt sick and disgusted.” The experience stiffened Williams to the dangers and risks. But also, given the nature of the pick-up, made it impossible for him to report the crime to the police.

Sometimes, when such encounters turned deadly, they would make headlines. When John Martin, a British citizen and steward on the Queen Elizabeth steamship, was found beaten to death in midtown Manhattan hotel in 1940, the press noted the hotel room “gave evidence of a violent battle.” The police eventually arrested two “cherubic cowboys” as the press termed them, for the murder. Initially claiming self-defence against Martin’s indecent advances, they eventually confessed that they “decided to ‘roll’ the Englishman.”

While the press found in such accounts the problems of urban crime and the tragedies of homosexual criminality, these stories also pointed to the dangers that queer men navigated in pursuits of sexual adventures and social life.

By the Cold War era, early gay civil rights groups found in such queer true crime stories evidence discrimination and prejudice against queer citizens. These stories helped develop a radical idea and build a new consciousness that homosexuals constituted a distinct social minority. One magazine, an early gay rights publications, reprinted and commented on such crime stories for it many subscribers. In doing so, the magazine exposed the pervasive criminalisation of homosexuals across the country in the 1950s and early 1960s, transforming the individual cases from small towns to big cities into a shared sense of collective injury and abuse experienced across the nation.

This collective sense is at the heart of the annual Stonewall commemoration. The resistance to the police raids on that summer night 50 years ago was as much about the ongoing harassment queer patrons felt as it was the decades of being treated as criminals on the street, in the courts, and in the press.

James Polchin is a writer, cultural historian, and clinical professor at New York University. He is the author of Indecent Advances: The Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall (Icon Books)