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Queer Justice: The Retrials of Leopold and Loeb

By Schildcrout, Jordan | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2011 | Go to article overview

Queer Justice: The Retrials of Leopold and Loeb


Schildcrout, Jordan, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Recent scholarship has done much to illuminate the ways in which homosexuality is constructed in the homophobic imagination as dangerous and deadly. Indeed, anti-gay rhetoric positions homosexuality not as a sexual orientation or even a lifestyle, but as a "deathstyle."1 The homosexual is seen as a sinister threat? to individual health (Sontag), to families and children (Edelman), to the bonds of community (Bersani), and to the strength of the nation (Miller). This "threat" often implies actual violence, realized in its most extreme form as murder, and the fantasy of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender killer has proved remarkably enduring. Seen in plays and movies over the past century, the murderous queer character conflates sexual deviance with violent criminal deviance, creating a villain who serves to vilify all queer people. LGBT activists have often made headlines by protesting such characters, appearing in films ranging from Cruising (1980) and Basic Instinct (1992) to Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives (2010). Founded in 1985, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) functions as a watchdog against such negative representations in news and entertainment media.

While the "queer killer" may be a homophobic construction, there are, of course, actual gay and lesbian people who do commit murder, and the representations of these real people raise more complex problems about queer villainy. Anti-gay organizations are fond of pointing to murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Andrew Cunanan, and Aileen Wuornos as "proof" of the evil of homosexuality, which then becomes "evidence" in the argument to deny civil rights to LGBT people. For example, the anti-gay Family Research Institute publishes the writings of Paul Cameron, who directly links the gory details of Jeffrey Dahmer 's cannibalism to a "substantial minority" of gay men and lesbians who practice "violent sex" as well as the reportedly high rate of suicide among gays and lesbians. The conclusion to be drawn from these tenuously connected assertions: "most violence involving gays is self-induced," and therefore hate crimes legislation should not be passed.3

The imagined link between homosexuality and murder is so strong that even when murderers are not known to be gay, the tabloid media sell the fantasy that they are. Soon after the 2002 capture of John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo, known as the Beltway Snipers, The National Enquirer ran a picture of the two men smiling and with their arms around each other and the headline: "Snipers: Their Secret Gay Life? & Why It Made Them Kill." (34-37). Similarly, after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, The Globe "exposed" the killer Seung-Hui Cho's "Secret Gay Life: What REALLY Drove Him to Kill." These tabloid stories are largely devoid of reliable facts about the murderer's sexuality; rather, the "evidence" is constructed to fit neatly into the readymade template that positions homosexuality as the cause of murder and the homosexual as pathologically driven to murder. When the queer killer trope is extended to mass murderers like Adolf Hitler and Mohamed Atta, homosexuality is constructed not just as a threat against individual lives, but against civilization itself.4

Interpretations of queer villainy are further complicated when real queer killers become the basis for characters in fictional narratives. Dahmer, Cunanan, and Wuornos have all been recreated as characters in movies, plays, and musicals, often written by openly gay and lesbian writers, and presented to gay and gay-friendly audiences. These fictionalized representations of queer killers should not be automatically dismissed or condemned as negative representations. Dramatic narratives about real queer killers have the potential to create more complex responses and interpretations, interrogating and possibly even combating the homophobia promoted by anti-gay organizations and the tabloid media. Plays and films can create new narratives that wrest the queer killer out of the hands of the homophobes and allow for different meanings to emerge.

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