Serial killers continue to hold a fascination on the American public. The crimes of this subset of murderers are frequently sexualized in nature, which perhaps adds to the titillation in media coverage. It is worth observing that many of the most widely-publicized serial murder cases of the past fifty years or so have involved gay or lesbian serial killers: Jeffrey Dahmer remains a household name even in 2014, but other cases such as Aileen Wuornos, John Wayne Gacy, Bob Berdella, Dean Corll, and (in the U.K.) Dennis Nilsen have received substantial publicity. (Wuornos and Gacy have each been the subject of Hollywood films.) It is worth investigating whether the issue of sexual orientation -- as a possible source of social stigma or generalized antisocial deviance -- has been linked to the pathology of serial murder. In an era of rapidly-changing social attitudes toward homosexuality, it is worth considering whether there was ever a relation between the crimes and the sexuality of this subset of killers, and if so whether it might be expected to change along with social attitudes.
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Is there anyone in America who has not heard of Jeffrey Dahmer? We live in a culture that promotes the "celebrity of serial killers," in the words of Kennedy (2006) -- the media finds it simple to promote a "morality play in which consensus is relatively easy to achieve" because "the serial killer is a monster and deserves the harshest punishment" (1303). Hollywood lavishes Oscars upon films like Silence of the Lambs, and rewards Charlize Theron with a Best Actress prize for her portrayal of female serial killer Aileen Wuornos in a movie entitled Monster -- the latest television sensation in early 2014 is the HBO series True Detective, which features a hunt for a fictional serial killer in rural Louisiana. In some sense, the serial killer is the perfect figure for the media culture in which we live -- serial killers provide us with suspense, and a clear-cut narrative of good and evil. As Lotz (1998) notes "the news media make people aware of the murders and foster public preoccupation with them" (530). When a serial killer is arrested and tried (like Dahmer) or executed (like Wuornos), the moralistic satisfaction for the public at large is tremendous.
We are not accustomed to thinking of Jeffrey Dahmer or Aileen Wuornos as sympathetic figures, but in terms of changing public narratives it is worth noting a fairly obvious fact: Jeffrey Dahmer was gay, and Aileen Wuornos was lesbian. 2014 has witnessed a fairly substantial revolution in public and political attitudes toward homosexuality even in the relatively recent time period since Dahmer and Wuornos each made headlines in the 1990s. In the 1990s, homosexuality was still largely associated in the public mind with the AIDS epidemic, which would not abate until 1997 with the advent of medications which changed HIV from a death sentence into a manageable chronic disease. Whether the AIDS epidemic had any influence over the remarkable rapidity with which civil rights for gays and lesbians have been achieved in the new century is a matter of some conjecture -- what is most important to note is that, in contrast with other civil rights struggles, the acceptance of gays and lesbians legally and socially seems to have been accomplished almost overnight.
And yet a substantial number of high profile serial killer cases have involved gays and lesbians: beyond Dahmer and Wuornos, a quick survey would include John Wayne Gacy (one of the most notorious serial killers of the 1970s), Dennis Nilsen (one of the most notorious British serial killers, still currently held in prison in the U.K.), Dean Corll, Bob Berdella, and several others. It would not seem that gays and lesbians are necessarily overrepresented in the population of serial killers that exists -- although figures are hard to come by for an exact percentage of gays and lesbians in the American population at large, it does not seem statistically likely that somehow gays and lesbians are predisposed to become serial killers in some way.
But what it is interesting, and worth a closer examination, is the way in which the existence of gay and lesbian serial killers disrupts the standard narratives we have for how serial murder is perpetrated. In general, the standard narrative follows the polemical argument that has been made by Caputi (1989): those "who torture, kill, and mutilate" in the ways that are most often associated with serial murder "are men, while their victims are characteristically females -- women and girls -- and to a lesser extent younger males. As this hierarchy indicates, these are crimes of sexually political, essentially patriarchal, domination" (445). Even the famous example of Jeffrey Dahmer must undergo a certain amount of revision to fit into a standardized Hollywood narrative of serial murder in Silence of the Lambs, which presents (somewhat bizarrely) the prospect of a LGBT-seeming serial killer who only hunts young chubby women. There has never been a real life case that resembles the gothic fantasy of Silence of the Lambs, but it is clear that the gothic fantasy exists for a reason: public fascination with Dahmer himself had to be combined somehow with the public sense of how it is that the standard model for serial killers sees them as operating. The general understanding is that serial killers are white heterosexual males who prey on vulnerable women, and thus the notion of a gay or lesbian serial killer is potentially disruptive to the received criminological paradigm.
This paper would like to examine the received paradigm about serial killers with a specific interest in the existence of gay and lesbian serial killers. The specific questions will be regarding whether the existence of gay and lesbian serial killers wholly undercuts all previous models of serial killer behavior, whether they might potentially adhere to their own model which could regarded as a subset of the existing paradigm, whether social stigma plays a role in the crimes, and whether the gay or lesbian identity itself (or potential refusal of that designation on the part of the criminal) might actually bear some relation to the crime beyond choice of victim.
There does not appear to be any reputable study focusing specifically on homosexual serial killers, and how their sexuality might potentially impact their crimes in some way. As a result the literature review for this thesis will entail an examination mostly of the existing literature in two areas: the psychology of serial killers, and then more specifically the existing studies on specifically homosexual killers. In the latter, I will focus primarily on Aileen Wuornos because, as the subject of a Hollywood film and also documentary films in which she gave on-camera interviews, Wuornos seems to be particularly well-documented. Also, as a lesbian whose victims were primarily male, she is easily the case that is most likely to disrupt any existing paradigms of behavior.
Sexuality obviously plays a large role in the literature on serial murder because so many of the crimes are sexualized, however specific commentary about the role of homosexuality is hard to come by. But a good starting point is provided by Fox and Levin (1998) in their extensive theoretical treatment of serial murder. They note that the social stigma that attaches itself to homosexuality plays into the process of how serial murderers contemplate their victims. As they argue:
Through essentially the same process of dehumanization, many serial killers have slaughtered innocent people by viewing them as worthless and, therefore, expendable. Thus, prostitutes are seen as mere "sex machines," gays as AIDS carriers, nursing home patients as "vegetables," and homeless alcoholics as nothing more than trash. By regard- ing their victims as subhuman elements of society, the killers can actually delude themselves into believing that they are doing something positive rather than negative. From their point-of-view, they are cleaning the streets of filth or ridding the world of evil…The theory of dehumanization can be extended to speculate about why some serial killers freely confess once in custody. Unlike true sociopaths who are incapable of feeling remorse, serial killers who must dehumanize their victims can for just so long maintain the myth that their victims deserved to die. After being apprehended, they may be forced to confront the disturbing reality that they have killed human beings, not animals or objects. (Fox and Levin 423)
A variation on this observation is offered elsewhere in the literature on serial murder by Heide (1991) who includes homosexuals in the category of frequent victims targeted by serial murders without specific consideration of how homosexuality might impact the serial murderers themselves: "Victims may have symbolic value and are perceived to be prestigeless and in most instances are unable to defend themselves or alert others to their plight, or are perceived as powerless given their situation in time, place or status within their immediate surroundings (such as vagrants, prostitutes, migrant workers, homosexuals, missing children, and single and often elderly women." (1103). Both…