Evil Choices, Hard Choices
Writer Andrew Vachss strikes a blow
By Dave Ford
A serial killer is silencing high-profile New York City gay bashers. He's explaining himself in gay-positive screeds published in the mainstream media. And his rampage is actually quelling gay bashing. Are you with this guy or against him? That's one of many questions Andrew Vachss (rhymes with ax) poses in his scorching, multilayered new crime novel, Choice of Evil (Knopf, $23).
The killer turns out not to be gay, nor is he simply avenging gay bashing. But creating the character allowed Vachss—a lawyer who at 56 has specialized in child and juvenile justice for more than two decades—to highlight the ramifications of violence against gays and lesbians. "Queer bashing flourishes in environments where the perpetrators feel safe," Vachss says. "I know of no other oppressed group without a physical safety zone. I don't see Klansmen burning crosses in black housing projects. [But] I see freaks deliberately going into gay areas to practice violence."
Crimes against children—rape, battery, and neglect, among them—are at the heart of Vachss's fierce legal and ethical war and figure heavily in his novels. His ongoing series (11 books so far) stars the mysterious Burke, an antihero who may soon become more familiar thanks to New Line Cinema, which optioned the movie rights to Choice of Evil in April.
Vachss, who in the early 1970s ran a maximum-security institution for hard-case juveniles, has studied violence long enough to understand the complicated rages that cause gay bashing. In mid May he addressed the topic during his keynote address at Stanford University's Annual Queer Awareness Conference.
He says bashers perceive their targets as weak, in part because gays and lesbians often don't fight back. Instead, many queers internalize rage. "If you look at these teenagers who go into high schools and kill their peers, you wonder: How come it's never queers who explode?" Vachss says. "After all, no group is more brutally mistreated or bullied. But when I ask that question, the answer I get back is that it is politically unfeasible. I wasn't asking about politics; I was asking about feelings."
The tough-talking writer stresses that he does not advocate violence as a political solution. Nevertheless, he says, "if it were me, I would get together a group of my associates, and we would say, 'This four-block area henceforth will be free of gay bashing.' And we'd enforce that. If you could prove that four blocks would be safe, you could prove 400 or 4,000 blocks would be safe."
Vachss doesn't favor hate-crimes legislation. "Those laws increase a prosecutor's burden," he insists, "because now you don't just have to prove criminal acts, you have to prove the motivation. Legislation doesn't change conduct. Enforcement does."
That enforcement, says Vachss, has to start at a young age: "Bullies aren't attracted to good fights; they're attracted to easy victims. If you can interdict that early, you have a chance."
Violent perpetrators can't be negotiated with, Vachss argues; they must be deterred. And for gays, that may mean hard choices. "The gay community tries to change attitudes rather than behavior, and that doesn't work," he says. "As long as homosexuals want to pursue both closeting and assimilation while demanding a kind of special covert affirmative action, nothing changes."
Dave Ford is a regular contributor to XY and the San Francisco Examiner. This article originally appeared in the June 08, 1999 issue of The Advocate. To read more of that issue—as well as daily updated headlines, polls, and more—visit Advocate.com.
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