Queer Blood

By Ned Stuckey-FrenchMay 4, 2015

Queer Blood
In Cold Blood is a queer book. It is other things, of course: an account of the hollowness of the American Dream, a classic of true crime, and, a true genre-buster, arguably, the first “nonfiction novel.” But, finally, it’s a book by a gay man about a gay man. Returning to it recently for the first time in years, this being the 50th anniversary of its publication (to all kinds of controversy and acclaim), I was struck most of all by its gayness. In Cold Blood is about Perry Smith and Dick Hickock and what went wrong between them, or at least that’s the reading I’m giving it here. Rereading In Cold Blood from this perspective can, I think, teach us a lot about who we are now and how we continue to think about marriage equality, gender roles, homosexual panic, homophobia, the association of homosexuality with pedophilia, sexual behavior in prisons and the military, and the ways in which homosexuality intersects with race and class.

Capote tells the story of how Perry’s desire for Dick rubs up against his own self-hatred, his resentment of heterosexual and middle-class orthodoxy, and his internalized homophobia, all of which explodes in a night of terror that leaves four people dead, and western Kansas stunned. It all begins in the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, where Perry and Dick are inmates, and where they get a tip from Dick’s ex-cellmate, who once worked for a rich Kansas farmer named Herb Clutter, who supposedly keeps a safe full of money in his house. Perry and Dick come up with a plan to break in and steal the cash.

While at Lansing, Dick competes for Perry’s soul with a fellow inmate named Willie-Jay, who is the chaplain’s clerk. Though scholars have never been able to track him down (Capote admitted to having changed his name), he appears at a telling point in a famous interview George Plimpton did with Capote in 1966. Plimpton asked Capote explicitly about Dick and Perry: “Was there any sexual relationship, or such tendencies, between them?”

Capote’s reply was contradictory. Adamant at first, he then equivocated about the “such tendencies” part of the question:

No. None at all. Dick was aggressively heterosexual and had great success. Women liked him. As for Perry, his love for Willie-Jay in the State Prison was profound — and it was reciprocated, but never consummated physically, though there was the opportunity. The relationship between Perry and Dick was quite another matter. What is misleading, perhaps, is that in comparing himself with Dick, Perry used to say how totally “virile” Dick was. But he was referring, I think, to the practical and pragmatic sides of Dick — admiring them because as a dreamer he had none of that toughness himself at all.

Willie-Jay is, like Perry, an autodidact with a florid prose style and some self-awareness, but he also loves to give spiritual advice, especially to Perry. When Perry’s sister sends Perry a long, preachy letter about self-respect and responsibility, Willie-Jay dismisses her and her letter as “foolish,” telling Perry that she just doesn’t understand her brother’s “outlook on life.” “What could be more conventional,” says Willie-Jay, “than a housewife with three children, who is ‘dedicated’ to her family???? What could be more unnatural than that she would resent an unconventional person. There is considerable hypocrisy in conventionalism.”

But what does Willie-Jay mean when he coins this term “conventionalism”? Does he mean middle-class? Law-abiding? Heterosexual? All of the above?

Later, when Perry is released on parole, Willie-Jay writes him a farewell letter calling Perry “a hungry man not quite sure where his appetite lies.” Perry is, he continues, possessed by an “explosive” and “unreasonable anger at the sight of others who are happy or content,” people you “despise” because “their morals, their happiness is the source of your frustration and resentment.” This resentment, Willie-Jay adds, is a “bacteria,” which “permitted to age, does not kill a man but leaves in its wake the hulk of a creature torn and twisted; there is still fire within his being but it is kept alive by casting upon it faggots of scorn and hate.” Perry shares this letter with Dick, who resents Willie-Jay and wants Perry’s attention all to himself. Dick senses Perry’s discomfort with Willie-Jay’s diagnosis. He is also aware of the compensation that is driving Willie-Jay’s brand of conversion therapy, so he cuts to the quick. He dismisses Willie-Jay’s piety as “just more of Billy Grahamcracker’s hooey,” and he adds, “‘Faggots of scorn!’ He’s the faggot.”

Dick felt he could keep Perry safely on a string, but Dick’s mother wasn’t sure. During the manhunt for Dick and Perry, she tells the detective who has visited her,

Dick brought him [Perry] home one evening, and told us he was a friend just off a bus from Las Vegas, and he wanted to know couldn’t he sleep here, stay here awhile. […] No, sir, I wouldn’t have him in the house. One look and I saw what he was. With his perfume. And his oily hair. It was clear as day where Dick had met him. According to the conditions of his parole, he wasn’t supposed to associate with anybody he’d met up there [in Lansing]. I warned Dick, but he wouldn’t listen.

Ostensibly, Mrs. Hickock is talking to this cop about larceny and bad checks, but she is also worried about sodomy, for one kind of immorality leads to another.

Prisons were, and are, seen as breeding grounds for homosexuality, but so was the military. In his wonderful book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, George Chauncey argues that in the early part of the 20th century there emerged a “discourse of degeneracy” — one that assumed red-blooded American service men were “normal” but that special conditions left them “sex-starved” and susceptible to the disease of “perversion,” and that such perversions needed to be policed. These temptations were compounded when sailors docked in foreign ports of call. At one point, Perry reminisces with convincing specificity about being in the Navy in Honolulu, and when he does, he oscillates between nostalgia and shame:

I liked being a sailor — seaports, and all that. But the queens on ship wouldn’t leave me alone. A sixteen-year-old kid, and a small kid. I could handle myself, sure. But a lot of queens aren’t effeminate, you know. Hell, I’ve known queens could toss a pool table out the window. And the piano after it. Those kind of girls, they can give you an evil time, especially when there’s a couple of them, they get together and gang up on you, and you’re just a kid. It can make you practically want to kill yourself. […] Jesus, I hate that stuff. I can’t stand it. Though — I don’t know. Some queers I’ve really liked. As long as they didn’t try anything. The most worth-while friend I ever had, really sensitive and intelligent, he turned out to be queer.

Chauncey argues that “hetero-homosexual binarism, the sexual regime now hegemonic in American culture, is a stunningly recent creation” that emerged only in the 1930s and did not become entrenched until the 1940s and 1950s. Before that, he says, only the “fairy” that adopted effeminate gender characteristics in order to attract other men was considered a “homosexual.” His partners, or “trade,” who were often working-class, sometimes married men, were not considered homosexual because they did not take on feminine gender roles, or allow themselves to be penetrated. Perry’s relationship with Dick is, I believe, a frustrated version of the trade-fairy relationship. Perry longs for Dick, who has two ex-wives and three sons and exudes a traditional heterosexual masculinity. Dick knows this and so is able to toy with Perry. Perry writes poetry; he plays the guitar; he cuts out and collects pages with pictures of body builders from weight-lifting magazines. As Perry’s former landlady in Las Vegas tells one detective: “[…] you oughta hear him talk. Big, long words coming at you in this kinda lispy, whispery voice. Quite a personality.” Dick’s gaydar is fully sensitive enough to pick up on all of this. He plays along with Perry’s plans for the two of them to embark on “a skin-diving, treasure-hunting life lived together among islands or along coasts south of the border.” At one point when Perry sees that Dick is depressed about having stuck his own father with some bad checks, he fears he’ll lose his friend. To hold onto him he rattles off a new scheme, one that will take them beyond their dream of Mexico, buying a fishing boat, and opening a charter business. They’ll go to South America instead:

“No fooling, Dick,” Perry said. “This is authentic. I’ve got a map. I’ve got the whole history. It was buried there back in 1821 — Peruvian bullion, jewelry. Sixty million dollars — that’s what they say it’s worth. Even if we didn’t find all of it, even if we found only some of it — Are you with me, Dick?” Heretofore, Dick had always encouraged him, listened attentively to his talk of maps, tales of treasure, but now — and it had not occurred to him before — he wondered if all along Dick had only been pretending, just kidding him. The thought, acutely painful, passed, for Dick, with a wink and a playful jab, said, “Sure, honey. I’m with you. All the way.”

And after the night at the Clutter farm, they are together — all the way — for they’re tracked down, caught, tried, and convicted. Near the end, while waiting on their appeals, they almost part. Perry goes on a hunger strike but finally gives it up. When he’s returned to Death Row from the prison hospital, Dick laughs and calls out to him, “Welcome home, honey.”

To get to this point where they are truly together — even, in a sense, married — the two of them had to be joined in violence and murder, and for this to happen Perry had to take two big steps. First, to convince Dick (and himself) that he is capable of murder, he tells Dick a story about how he killed a black man in Vegas because the guy read nothing but “comic books and cowboy junk,” constantly left his door open, and “was always lying there buck-naked.” Perry, who is part Cherokee and views himself as a half-breed, banks on Dick’s racism when he tells this tale (and it is a tale, for he never actually killed the man). White supremacy joins up with heterosexism. As Capote puts it, “When he’d told Dick that story, it was because he’d wanted Dick’s friendship, wanted Dick to ‘respect’ him, think him ‘hard,’ as much ‘the masculine type’ as he had considered Dick to be.”

Next — and this happens on the night of the murders — Perry has to face the possibility of losing Dick forever. He has to believe that Dick might slide away into his own brand of perversion — his penchant for underage females. Back in Miami, when Dick flirted with a 12-year-old girl on the beach, Perry was disgusted and enraged:

Perry, still reclining under the blue umbrella, had observed the scene and realized Dick’s purpose at once, and despised him for it; he [Perry] had “no respect for people who can’t control themselves sexually,” especially when the lack of control involved what he called “pervertiness” — “bothering kids,” “queer stuff,” rape.

Perry knows Dick for who he is — a pedophile, a rapist, and a pervert. But it is not until they break into the Clutters’ house that he realizes that Dick is there not to rob the family but to rape Nancy (something Dick admits to Capote later on). It is then that Perry takes the knife from Dick, slits Herb Clutter’s throat, and lets loose with the shotgun until the room “blazes” and “turns blue.” “I meant to call his bluff,” says Perry, “make him argue me out of it, make him admit he was a phony and a coward. See, it was something between me and Dick.”

In Cold Blood appeared in 1965, four years before Stonewall. Our country has come a long way since then: the first Pride marches; the AIDS crisis; Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the challenges to both those terrible laws; and now the inexorable march toward marriage equality. And yet this moment — this coming of age — is also marked by a continued counteroffensive — the passage in many states of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts aimed at gay people, a Republican presidential candidate arguing that gay sex in prisons proves that homosexuality is nothing but a lifestyle choice, and a continuing reluctance on the part of the federal government to make LGBTQ people a protected class. For this reason, we need to reread In Cold Blood as a classic of queer literature, a book that can continue to teach us about the closet and the damage done.


Dr. Stuckey-French specializes in the personal essay and modern American literature and culture.

LARB Contributor

Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is book review editor of Fourth Genre. He is the author of The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri Press, 2011), co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time (University of Iowa Press, 2012), and co-author (with Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Longman, 8th edition). His articles and essays have appeared in journals and magazines such as In These Times, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Walking Magazine, culturefront, Pinch, Guernica, middlebrow, and American Literature, and have been listed five times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays.


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