When gay novelist David McConnell began exploring violence against gay men for his first nonfiction book, American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men (Akashic Books, $11.96), he had no idea he’d end up looking at the issue from the side of the perpetrators, exploring the intersections of violence, sexuality, and hatred with the killers themselves. In a culture where artists and celebs and everyday LGBT folks talk of being bullied but never of being the bully, McConnell’s exposé challenges us to acknowledge the natural impulse to violence that rests in everyone. American Honor Killings hit bookshelves just as a series of (seemingly unrelated) murders of gay men in New York City brought out politicians and activists to warn of the dangers of homophobia, but McConnell says that take on crime is simple and misguided. In his book, he says, he wanted to “shake up what’s become a formulaic story and show that if there is a cause it lies in the killers more than in the victims.”
The Advocate: It’s hard not to think of the recent murders in New York while reading your book. What did you learn during your investigations that you could apply to those cases?
David McConnell: I wrote about cases in which the victim was gay or thought to be gay. That was what got me interested on a personal level. But as I studied the murders I came to think we shouldn’t be categorizing these crimes based on the identity of the victims. The problem is larger and deeper. It begins with the impulse to violence itself. I think the gay issue is a great lens through which we can look at all violence among men. It helps us understand the psychology of the people involved. But what goes on in the hate murder of a gay man, for example, isn’t really so different from school shootings, racist attacks, and to an extent, even violence against women. I don’t want to take anything away from certain victims or deny that they’re all preyed upon for their perceived weakness or marginality, but it’s important to look at the source. It’s our society’s notion of manhood.
One thing you explore is how desire and anger can coexist, as it does with more than one of the killers you talked to. Did that surprise you?
I’ve always been comfortable with emotional paradox, so no, not really. I think I was more shocked and upset by the cases where intense emotions weren’t involved. In other words, where an idea of what was right — that gay people didn’t deserve to exist — could lead to murder. The killers were clearly disturbed, but those particular crimes had a political inflection. We don’t like to think about that in this country. I find it much scarier.
You have a theory that the “hate” is there often before the target of that hate, and certainly before the actual victim. Do you feel like that’s something that’s commonly understood when we look at murders of gay or bisexual men?
No. We’ve come to rely so heavily on the terms of identity politics that we miss all sorts of issues that aren’t particularly our own. We don’t want to engage with straight men or damaged men or violent men until it’s too late, until it’s time for punishment or retribution.
When the media talks about hate crimes, you don’t think they get it right. Why?
I guess one problem I’d point to is emotionalism. Americans like their politics and their news to have a lot of feeling. We want our president to bite his lip and our Twitter feed to scream, “I hope he rots in hell #pigbasketballcoach.” People complain about civility and sound-bite culture, but not many notice that it’s the emotion that’s so corrosive. What do you expect from a culture that treats scientists like villains? Hate crimes are prime territory for extreme emotions, understandably. Emotions like that thrive on certainty. I wanted people to stop and think and even get a little confused about the issue. In this case I think a certain kind of confusion would lead to better understanding.