Versace’s death was a shock for many reasons but mostly because it exposed the world to something quite shocking: a killer gay. Long had LGBT persons been used as villains in popular culture but the death of Versace brought this villainizing full circle: Versace’s killer – Andrew Cunanan, a gay hustler type who found himself in a fashionable circle – was very outwardly gay and killed at least five men associated with his sexual preference before taking his own life in Miami on July 24, 1997. Sure, being gay was perceived as “bad” at this time but, in a post-AIDS universe, society needed someone to pin the nefariousness of queer sex onto and a murderous faggot was the perfect vehicle.
Look to a 48 Hours report, which illustrated how his antics became a personification of the dangers of queer life. In effect, his behavior was a morality tale to not be gay because, if AIDS doesn’t get you, Cunanan will.
After Andrew Cunanan murdered Jeff Trail, David Madson and Lee Miglin, the gay community was terrified — especially in San Diego.
Michael Williams: I think everybody was in a state of shock. I think some people were in a state of fear…People didn’t answer their doors. People that knew him the most stayed other places.
Michael Williams relocated to Scottsdale, Arizona.
Michael Williams: Everybody was on very high alert.
Richard Schlesinger: Because you didn’t know where he was gonna strike again?
Michael Williams: Yeah.
Scary, right? I mean, yes, but people who are evil are everywhere: this was just a “community” monster.
Cunanan’s gayness was tied to his narrative because serial murders and violence are always seen a product of sexual failures and sexual rebellion. Vanity Fair explains.
Sex is often a strong element in these crimes. The offenders need to act out their sadistic fantasies, says McCrary, and they repeat them till they get it right. “Typically, they have compliant victims—they begin with sex partners who were complying with their fantasies. They get someone to go along with bondage and torture until the victim won’t go along anymore, so the sadistic offender is not satisfied. By the time they reach their late 20s and early 30s, they’ve developed their sadistic fantasies. They’re really vibrant at this point, and they need to act out these things, and they can’t find people to go along with them. So now they find an unwilling victim to abduct, rape, or murder. There’s a much higher rate of homicide if torture is acted out against the will of the other individual.”
This narrative has long existed around serial killers as every killer is a sort of metaphor for a societal ill. They look just like us but represent our biggest failings in that they have resorted to killing to get ahead. Any other misbehaviors or wrongdoings that they subscribed — like being a financial failure, liking kids too much, being a hippie, etc. — heightened the problem and spread suspicion to anyone else who shared these attributes.
I’ve long been fascinated with this idea, that the serial killer is an evil product of societal taboos. I actually wrote a pseudo-thesis on the subject in my senior year in college, where my newly gay ass meditated on Cunanan as a sexually violent symbol for evil and homophobia that built off figures like Jeffrey Dahmer (who can be seen as a reaction to economic failures) and Ted Bundy (who can be seen as a failure of straight success). Cunanan changed the pace of serial killing in a few ways.
Here’s what I wrote about the subject for school in 2008. Hold your groans at the hands of liberal arts academic youth, please.
Cunanan’s being pinned as a serial killer is related to the idea that the serial killer was transformed from such a violent beast to a more effeminate, non-formulaic entity: the serial killer is moved from persons who kill out of “lust” or erotic slayings to persons who kill because, like the sexual homicide note attached to “serial killing,” are out of being homosexual — sex and murder are synonymous for the serial killer. (Ingebretsen, pg. 78) Similarly, for Cunanan and the concept of “serial killer,” items associated with Cunanan were also pinned to both the serial killer community and the homosexual community. These associations include drug usage, promiscuity, partying, binge drinking, prostitution, lack of masculinity, and nudity: the excitement in the male narrative is the escapism involved with what he is capable and cast to perform in society. The male narrative for the serial killer is exciting in that, out of all of the types of serial killers, the male narrative provides the most modes for escapism through taboo activity.
I barely know what I mean now but the subject meandered for four more paragraphs and I believe it is saying the same thing. (I got an A+ on this paper too. So take that, student loans.)
As it has been twenty years since Cunanan’s death and he is poised for a “comeback,” it’s funny to see how radically things have changed, to where a murderer like Cunanan could be seen as a “killer” instead of a “gay killer.” Unfortunately, that title will never be stripped. While queerness is “in,” he will always be this metaphor for queer lifestyles gone awry. Why else is Darren Criss playing him on television? His metaphor will live on, intentionally or not, since it is based on fact not fiction.
Intentionally or not, Cunanan’s story always has and always will be a morality tale about the dangers of queerness run amok, where this free wheeling person flew so close to the sun that he was able to murder a top gay in a gay industry (two subjects – fashion and queerness – that have since evolved hugely, in tandem, in the past twenty years). His story may have evolved to parlor talking entertainment but think beyond the screen. He’s still acting out his evils via performing the role of serial killer as it relates to gay sex societal ills.