Jeffrey Dahmer enabled by racism and homophobia
Between 1987 and 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer was responsible for the murders of 17 Black, Indigenous, Asian and Latino men and boys in Wisconsin. Eleven victims were African-American, and most murders were committed on Milwaukee’s predominantly Black Northside. Dahmer met many of his victims in gay bars and LGBTQ community spaces, or at bus stops and various commercial venues throughout the city. While not all the men and boys publicly identified as LGBTQ, some of them might be considered “in the life” — a term used to describe the meeting of “street life” (ie, sex workers, hustlers, pimps) and “gay life”.
There has been a surfeit of TV shows and films profiling Dahmer. The recently released Netflix series created by Ryan Murphy, Dahmer ‒ Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, is just the latest in a libidinous true crime canon that emphasises spectacle and gore, while undermining or even diminishing the lived experiences of Dahmer’s victims.
Typical depictions of his killing frenzy fail to note how LGBTQ communities of colour were easy prey for Dahmer — and for many others, not just serial killers — because of deep-seated histories of police violence and indifference in urban centres throughout the Midwest and the Rust Belt. Without this element, the story is incomplete and sacrifices a chance to reckon with a major societal problem.
As with many other cities after the Second World War, Milwaukee saw an increase in the public visibility of LGBTQ communities. During the war, the city’s Metropolitan Commission on Crime Prevention, an influential crime prevention body composed of the city’s civic leaders, conducted a study of gay life in Milwaukee and found that nearly 1,000 gay men called the city home. Their increased visibility in the city led to more policing and convictions. A February 1945 report showed that 871 men had been convicted of sodomy in the city since 1938 — with the number of convictions rising from 72 men in 1938 to 198 in 1944.
The city’s Black population also increased during this period because of the Black exodus from the South known as the Second Great Migration, owing to industrial growth generated by wartime manufacturing necessities. After the Second World War, Blacks from states such as Mississippi and Arkansas migrated to Milwaukee seeking better job opportunities. The city’s Black population more than doubled over ten years, growing from 8,821 in 1940 to 21,722 by 1950.
Black veterans returning from the war were largely excluded from benefiting from the GI Bill, which afforded White Americans the ability to buy low-interest homes and more. Black families instead crowded into an area of the Northside with dilapidated houses, known as the “inner core”, while White residents fled to the city’s inner suburbs, where a system of racially exclusionary policies — such as redlining and predatory lending practices — kept Black people out.
Milwaukee law enforcement targeted the city’s growing Black community, building on a long history of policing Black people for their intimate and sexual practices in urban areas throughout the country. For instance, heterosexual Black-White interracial relationships were frequently targeted by the city’s newspapers and the police.
Additionally, since at least the 1920s, curfew and vagrancy laws regulated Black people’s presence on the city’s streets. As the Black population grew, so too did White cries that something had to be done to fix the city, which they now believed was in moral decay. The media frequently blamed Black migration to Milwaukee as the reason for an increased crime rate.
The media also helped to spur the criminalisation of the city’s residents considered to be living morally offensive lives. In the 1940s, the Milwaukee Journal frequently used phrases such as “slaves of lust” and “menace of sex perverts” in editorials discussing the growing LGBTQ culture and other forms of “deviant” sexuality. It was also a proponent of a sexual psychopath law introduced by the MCCP in 1946 that would allow the “overt homosexual” to be committed to an institution until they were cured of their purported deviancy.
As LGBTQ people became more visible and Blacks migrated in higher numbers to cities such as Milwaukee, it helped to justify the introduction and passage of such repressive sexual psychopath laws, which were designed to “diffuse the threat of a growing minority presence”. Wisconsin was among the 12 states that passed such laws between 1937 and 1950.
The shifts in urban demographics also prompted Milwaukee law enforcement to develop new police units that would protect the interests of the city’s White community against Black Milwaukeeans and other marginalised communities such as LGBTQ and Latino people.
By the 1960s, there were 4½ times as many police stationed in the Fifth Police District in the city’s predominantly Black Northside compared with its neighbouring majority-White district. Years of incidents of police violence against Black residents compounded this overpolicing. One such case was the 1958 murder of a Black man named Daniel Bell. White police officer Thomas Grady shot Bell in the back and planted a knife on him. After a 20-year police cover-up, Grady confessed in 1979 and was convicted of reckless homicide and perjury.
This kind of terror against Black Milwaukeeans created a culture of fear and distrust between the police and Black people, who often hesitated to report crimes committed against them — which helps explain how someone such as Dahmer could go relatively unnoticed or unpunished for so long. Many Black people feared that their pleas for help would go unheard, especially with an antiquated 1911 municipal statute in place called the “freeholder clause” that prohibited anyone who did not own property from filing complaints against the police with the Fire and Police Commission. That statute was in effect until 1967.
As the Dahmer case shows, anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ policing has been long since connected. In the 1950s, the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel regularly published the names of men arrested on sexual “deviancy” charges. The public harassment after such intimidating acts even led one man to die by suicide in the early 1960s.
In the 1960s and 1970s, under the administration of police chief Harold Breier, the police began a harassment campaign against the LGBTQ community. In May 1978, the Milwaukee vice squad raided the Broadway Health Club, a bathhouse and cruising spot, and violently arrested 18 people. The raids continued throughout the summer, with the city’s vice squad raiding two health clubs in July.
Altogether, these long histories of anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ violence created an environment where Dahmer could murder 15 Black, Indigenous, Asian and Latino men and boys who were LGBTQ or “in the life” in a span of four years. Many were particularly susceptible to Dahmer and his tactics because of decades of the city’s structured racism and homophobia.
Today we know there were many instances in which the police could have intervened but did not do so. In one instance, officers John A. Balcerzak and Joseph T. Gabrish had the opportunity to rescue a disoriented, unclothed and bleeding 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone — a Laotian boy who had managed to escape Dahmer’s apartment and was found in the street.
Dahmer convinced the officers that Sinthasomphone was his 19-year-old lover, and the two had only had a spat — despite the protestations of a Black neighbour named Glenda Cleveland and her female relatives who had attempted to rescue the teenager. The officers threatened the Black women with arrest for meddling and Sinthasomphone was returned to Dahmer, who soon murdered him. Although Balcerzak and Gabrish were eventually fired for their actions, they were reinstated with back pay in 1994. Balcerzak had a long career in the police department, serving as president of the Milwaukee Police Association from 2005 to 2009, before retiring in 2017.
The erasure of this side of the story has been decades in the making. Depictions of the Dahmer case have mentioned victims’ own “brushes with the law” — implying that they were something less than innocent victims. Such accounts diminished the violence against victims, and they continue to shape and inspire various cultural products about Dahmer.
The constant retellings of the Dahmer story will be incomplete — and potentially damaging — unless they include this side of the story. The long history of police violence and indifference towards the city’s Black and LGBTQ communities enabled the murders by reducing the odds of police intervention. Today, Milwaukee is frequently cited as one of the worst places in the country to be Black. But despite this reality, instead of seeing an accurate portrayal of the Dahmer story, we now have another Hollywood profile that serves to elide the histories and conditions that allowed him to enter a racially marginalised community and murder some of its most vulnerable members.
• Kidiocus King-Carroll is an assistant professor of Africana studies and anthropology at CSU-Channel Islands