QUEER CRIME: How Homophobia Helped 4 Gay Serial Killers Continue To Kill
These prolific serial killers could have been caught sooner if police weren’t so quick to brush off their victims…
By Courtney Hardwick
If you’re a true crime fan, you know there’s no shortage of books, documentaries, podcasts and original reporting dedicated to the victims of violent crimes and the people who commit those crimes. At the same time, we know that cases that get the most attention are usually ones that are committed against white, middle class, cisgender people. From serial killers like Ted Bundy, the Golden State Killer and Paul Bernardo to victims of the most talked-about unsolved cases like JonBenet Ramsey, the media is busy covering a certain (very small) selection of cases. Meanwhile hate crimes, including murders of gay, trans and non-binary people are on the rise. Queer Crime is a monthly column focusing on true crime with an LGBTQ+ spin whether it’s the victim or the perpetrator.
This month, we’re taking a look at some of the most infamous gay serial killers—and how their victims were treated, by the police, the media, and the public. Due to deeply ingrained biases, ignored and mishandled evidence, and assumptions about the victims, some of these cases took decades to solve while victim counts continued to grow. Here are four gay serial killers that evaded detection in part because of homophobia.
John Wayne Gacy
In 1978, 36-year-old John Wayne Gacy was arrested for the murder of 16-year-old Robert Piest. He told police he had more bodies buried in the crawl space under his house in a suburb of Chicago which led investigators to find the remains of 33 young men and boys that had been missing for anywhere from a few months to a few years. Peacock’s new docu-series, John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise dives into how Chicago police and the media turned to victim blaming to explain how Gacy had managed to get away with murder for so long.
Gacy, the owner of a successful construction business, claimed his victims were “male prostitutes” and “hustlers” when in reality, many of them worked for him at his construction company and lived at home with their parents. Newspapers labelled Gacy the “Homo Butcher”, and referred to the murders as “bizarre sex slayings”, and “gay sex-murders”.
Gacy committed a number of assaults that didn’t end in murder and despite reports being filed by the victims, police believed Gacy when he claimed it was nothing more than a consensual “sex-slave” relationship gone awry. Rather than believe the victim, police brushed them off and Gacy remained free to continue killing.
Jeffrey Dahmer committed the murder and dismemberment of 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991. Some of his victims were male prostitutes and he met some of them at gay bars around Milwaukee. By 1991 he had already killed 10 people but he was nowhere close to being caught. Milwaukee’s gay community was used to people coming and going and no one—police or civilian—had connected any of the disappearances or considered that there might be a serial killer among them.
While Dahmer started out drugging, assaulting and then strangling his victims, eventually he started to experiment with keeping them alive, but incapacitated. In the process of committing his 13th murder, Dahmer left his victim, 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone, alone in his apartment after injecting hydrochloric acid into his frontal lobe. He came back to find Simthasomphone had woken up and escaped his apartment. Three young women had found him and called the police.
When the police arrived, Dahmer claimed Simthasophone was his boyfriend and he’d just had too much to drink after a fight.The police made a couple gay jokes before helping Dahmer take his victim back to his apartment. They took Dahmer’s word for it, calling it a “boyfriend-boyfriend thing” and didn’t conduct a search—if they had, they would have found the body of another victim, who Dahmer has killed just three days earlier. Simthasophone was killed not long after the police left him with Dahmer.
Attempting to explain away homophobia in the way police investigate crimes with arguments about it being “a different time” can only get you so far. In the case of Toronto’s Bruce McArthur, police were ignoring red flags and conducting biased investigations only a few years ago. McArthur murdered eight men between 2010 and 2017 and a recently released report found that “misconceptions” about the gay community may have impeded the search for his victims.
McArthur was known to police for years before he became a real suspect. He was charged with assault in 2001 and was directly connected to at least a couple of the missing men who later turned out to be his victims. Many people in Toronto’s LGBTQ+ community believed there was a serial killer hunting in the gay village but police publicly denied it. In response to criticism of how they handled the case, the police chief said “we knew people were missing and that we didn’t have the right answers. But nobody was coming to us with anything.” This victim blaming and lack of accountability is just one reason why there is still deep tension and distrust of the police in the gay village.
In his podcast for CBC, Uncover: The Village, and his book Missing in the Village, Toronto journalist Justin Ling covers how the police handled the investigation of missing men in the Village going back to 2010. He also digs into a number of older cases that show that the Toronto police have been biased against the LGBTQ+ community for decades and although progress has been made, the McArthur case revealed that there is still a long way to go.
Dennis Nilsen was a serial killer who murdered at least 12 young men and boys in London, England between 1978 and 1983. He targeted groups that police had a history of ignoring and brushing off. Some of Nilsen’s victims were gay, and many of them were runaways who were homeless and involved in sex work. Nilsen lured many of them to his place with the promise of a place to sleep for the night but once they were there he would strangle or drown them.
At least two men who were assaulted by Nilsen managed to escape and call the police. Nilsen was questioned but police were convinced the assaults were just part of a consensual relationship between two men and chose not to dig any further. The homophobia in England at the time was engrained into the police force and Nilsen chose victims he knew he could get away with. Paul Nobbs, a victim that managed to escape murder testified at Nislen’s trial that he chose not to report his assault because he was afraid of being outed.
Des, an ITV drama depicts Nilsen’s arrest, interrogation and trial including how police biases and homophobia assisted Nilsen is getting away with murder when he could have been caught much earlier.
For more of Courtney Hardwick’s fascinating QUEER CRIME series click here.