Op-Ed: Sal Mineo—Another Wrongful Death
I have been watching the new FX television series American Horror Story since the show premiered. I know this is a work of fiction, and thus far, it has been effectively eerie. The October 19 original broadcast episode, though, was disappointing to me. I don’t know if the reference to Sal Mineo’s murder and erroneous explanation of the actual attack was introduced for “one-off’ shock value, or there was some reason to introduce the murder which will reveal itself sometime in later broadcasts. Sal Mineo was not murdered in a city alley by a disgruntled “trick.” Mineo was murdered in the entrance way to his apartment building in West Hollywood by Lionel Ray Williams during the course of a botched robbery. At the time, the press, and even some law enforcement officials wrongly assumed it was a “gay murder”, and consequently, the investigation into the truth stalled. This false assumption about his murder, which was promoted by gossip and innuendo, was so often repeated it took on mythic proportions. This concocted story diminished the way many people remembered the legacy of Sal Mineo. All of this is covered in my book, Sal Mineo, A Biography. I spent ten years researching and writing the book.
I have pondered the way gay people are depicted on movie and television screens. It’s important that creative people are conscious of the way minorities are depicted for public consumption. Movies and television teach many people what to think about gay men and women. Gay teenagers are killing themselves with disturbing frequency as a result of bullying and feeling alone. We hear about this now with heartbreaking regularity. There are so few role models for gay youngsters to look up to, and the story lines concerning gay characters often end in tragedy – the subconscious message being that if you are gay you will suffer and be punished for your “sin.”
Ryan Murphy, the creator of American Horror Story, is himself gay. I like his series Glee very much, but the representation of Sal Mineo’s murder caught me off guard. It was disappointing and especially disturbing – considering Mr. Murphy seems to have decided to perpetuate a homophobic myth about the murder of Mineo. It’s disturbing to me — the author of Mineo’s biography, it’s disturbing to his many fans and to Sal’s beloved sister Sarina, and especially to the many young gay people who have developed an appreciation for Mr. Murphy’s work and tuned in only to see this gross misrepresentation of the truth. Sal Mineo did not die because he was gay, or because he compromised his own safety with a stranger in an alley, or because he picked up a violent gay “killer.” He was killed during a robbery-gone-wrong by a young man who didn’t even know who he was. Being gay is not punishable by death.
I know Mr. Murphy’s series is a work of fiction. I also know people believe what they see on television and in the movies. Mr. Murphy’s reinvention of the truth in regards to Sal Mineo’s senseless death mystifies me. It only reinforces the negative, homophobic myth about his murder – something I worked hard to write honestly about in my biography of the two-time Oscar nominee, Emmy nominee, gold record and Golden Globe-winning actor. Sal Mineo achieved greatness as a gay man. He did not die because of it.
Artist and photographer Michael Gregg Michaud is the author of Sal Mineo A Biography (Three Rivers Press, $16).