“American Honor Killings” By David McConnell: Murders of Gay Men

A new nonfiction book by novelist David McConnell refers neither to “gay panic defense” nor “hate crimes,” widely used terms and concepts used for decades often to controversial effect—but to “honor killings.” In American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men McConnell provides case studies of men in the U.S. who’ve killed gay men. It seems that the motives behind these murders have been more complex than is implied when commonly used labels are assigned:

Beginning in 1999 and lasting until last year’s conviction of a youth in Queens, New York, the book shows how some murderers think they’re cleaning up society. Surprisingly, other killings feel almost preordained, not a matter of the victim’s personality or actions so much as a twisted display of a young man’s will to compete or dominate. We want to think these stories involve simple sexual conflict, either the killer’s internal struggle over his own identity or a fatally miscalculated proposition. They’re almost never that simple.

In an interview with Saeed Jones, BuzzFeed, McConnell further explains his preference for focusing on the perpetrators—versus on the supposed effect of the victims’ identities on the would-be murderers:

I’m not proposing that we start calling them ‘honor killings.’ I just want the focus to move away from the victims and onto the perpetrators because I think these crimes are something that comes out of them, out of their behavior, their obsessions, their fears, their sense of the world. It’s not the fault of anybody who’s hurt or attacked, whether it’s a class or an individual. And I think if we start calling them hate crimes or ‘gay panic,’ it absolves these guys, to some degree. Very often, panic or extreme emotion from any kind is absent from these murders. In many of the crimes I researched, the guy had a very intense reaction to homosexuality, but often it was crossed with anti-Semitism or a really vile kind of racism. In other words, it’s this generalized kind of hatred that’s [made them] lash out at anyone perceived to be weaker or a second-class citizen.

It may be important to note that when McConnell was conducting extensive research for American Honor Killings, including visits and correspondence with the convicted murderers, he came out as gay to all of them; they were apparently able to deal with this. Interestingly, at least one of the killers is bisexual, and another, Darrell Madden, has come out as gay since being in prison.

Kirkus Reviews summarizes how the author perceives the Madden case:

While his conclusion may be questionable, McConnell convincingly shows how fluid terms like ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ can actually be. One such example is the case of Darrell Madden, a former homosexual porn star who became an anti-gay neo-Nazi and murdered a homosexual in 2007. This was one of five cases where young men, with homosexual pasts or fears, killed homosexuals, or suspected homosexuals, in crimes discussed as hate crimes. The author compares these to the Wyoming killing of Matthew Shepard or the murder of African-American James Byrd Jr. by white supremacists. ‘Hatred was a critical factor in these murders. It would be poisonous to pretend otherwise,’ he writes, but it is not the whole story. In McConnell’s opinion, a review of the perpetrators, victims and circumstances indicates more—’hatred often seems to exist prior to its having a clear object.’

McConnell further explains to Jerry Portwood of Out how he views the killers as a group:

…(T)hey did largely hate gay people, but it was born of ignorance more than anything. I think the sexuality came in as a method of access to the victims. They were going to kill somebody — they were so angry and wanted to kill a marginal figure in society — and the access they had was to gay men because that’s how they could ‘hook up’ that way.

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