The Andrew Cunanan story— from its beginnings as a nearly unnoticed Minneapolis
murder on through the killing of Gianni Versace—ended in a not-very-dramatic suicide
that swept the story off page one into news oblivion. But as the smoke from the media
blitz clears several facts are now evident. First of all, the police and FBI handling of
the case was, from beginning to end, riddled with incompetence. When the victims were only
gay men—they had little interest. When they did become more dedicated, after the
murder of the allegedly straight Lee Miglin, they had little notion of how to understand
the gay world in which Andrew Cunanan lived. When the police had to explain their handling
of the case and the media had to report to the non-gay public, it was their fantasies of
gay life—extrapolated from flimsy evidence and shot through with lurid and
less-than-imaginative detail—that took center stage.
While Cunanan was not convicted, his culpability seems fairly evident. But what was
fascinating about the media’s reporting was not the presumption of guilt but how they
dealt with homosexuality. The media continually referred to Cunanan as a "gay serial
killer"—the phases "black serial killer," or "Jewish serial
killer" would never be used by mainstream journalists, nor would Cunanan, who was
half-Filipino, be called a "Filipino serial killer." Also fascinating was how
the media constructed images of Andrew Cunanan as an evil, dangerous, deadly homosexual.
These images—often based on nothing more than hearsay or conjecture—tell us more
about fantasies and fears of heterosexuals and mainstream media than about facts of the
Take for instance the endless prattle in the press about Cunanan’s purported
relationship between sex and money, repeatedly labeling him a "hustler,"
"call boy," "gold digger," "high-priced prostitute," and
"kept boy." One report claimed, in a commendatory tone, that "he
selectively dated wealthy older men." (As opposed to what? Undiscriminating dating of
older men? Dating by its nature is selective.) All of these terms conjure up indolent,
immoral characteristics centered on trading sex for money.
The reality is that Cunanan lived for several years with an older gay man and had
access to some discretionary spending money. This same description might be applied to
many women like, say, Ivana Trump or Princess Diana. The exception being that they had
access to the institution of marriage.
In none of the news stories was Cunanan’s several years long connection with this
man called a relationship or an affair. Did they have sex? Did they have emotional
feelings for one another? We have no idea, yet the media was intent on portraying
Cunanan’s sexual behavior as unfeeling and predatory. The mainstream press has a hard
time imagining that any gay relationships can be as loving, tender, confusing, or valid as
heterosexual relationships. More to the point, Cunanan’s alleged financial
relationship with other men made him, in a culture that demands men be actively
productive, less of a man. This "feminization" of Cunanan would emerge later in
the investigation as a major theme.
Cunanan’s construction as a "kept boy"—often described as
"flamboyant"; now that’s a code word for you—was also conflated with
images of a vaguely illicit and superficially glamorous social life in which he is
described as "always picking up the tab" or "treating a tableful of friends
to dinner." Some of these phrases, innocent enough when used in other situations,
were given a meaning that smacked of decadence and frivolity. One newspaper report claimed
that Cunanan was a "clever, name-dropping, gay socialite who would do anything for
attention," implying that each of these traits or descriptions lead, inevitably, to
serial murder. For a "journalistic ethics" check, imagine a newspaper claiming
that someone was a "shrewd, financially-well connected, Jewish socialite who would do
anything to get ahead." I don’t think so.
After the Versace murder all media hell broke lose and theories began flying fast and
furious. Maureen Orth, a journalist who was already at work on a story about Cunanan for
Vanity Fair, discovered that while in Miami, Cunanan had rented several
"pornographic s/m videos." Ah hah! Orth, interviewed on television’s
"Dateline" and other faux news shows, claimed that she had spoken to several
psychologists who explained that the basis of s/m activity was an unlimited and violent
rage. Orth presented this plum with great satisfaction.
What were these videos and who evaluated them as s/m? Can Orth, who has exhibited no
particular expertise in gay male sexuality, make this evaluation? Many mid-list videos
from mainstream companies like Catalina and All Worlds now feature a few leather body
harnesses, a dildo or two, and some light spanking. Is this what Orth mistook for
"s/m?" But what if Cunanan had rented hard-core dungeon/torture videos like Kink
Video’s Delivery Discipline on Punishment Punks? Does that mean that he was
"into" s/m? Does that mean that s/m equals rage and that rage equals murder?
Orth’s hop, skip, and a jump through these fallacious assumptions—reported in
the mainstream media as truth—are worthless rumor mongering predicated on
misunderstanding sexuality and used to further the image of gay sexuality as monstrous.
Another ethics test was the national front-page headlines claiming that Cunanan crimes
were the result of his having AIDS. The New York Post screamed "AIDS Fuels His
Frenzy," embodying a now classic mainstream fear: the AIDS killer. This story found
its source in the statement of an HIV councilor who claimed that Cunanan, in passing,
mentioned that it was possible that he might be HIV-positive. This, in turn, was promoted
by the Miami police as an "explanation" of Cunanan’s actions. The insanity
of this logic, and its promotion as "news," is evident in the Post’s
reporting: "Dr. Scott Allen, a senior staff psychologist with the Metro-Dade Police
Department in Miami, said investigators believe Cunanan— fearing he is HIV-positive
or enraged about some humiliation—is targeting people he fantasizes may have infected
or embarrassed him." In attempting to pinpoint some element in Cunanan’s
personality as a "cause," they equate being HIV-positive with being
"embarrassed." There was never any logical connection between Cunanan’s
sero-status and his actions; it was only his being gay that led to this public
hypothesizing. In fact, an autopsy showed Cunanan to be HIV-negative.
In the last stages of the investigations—and Cunanan’s life—the
authorities became even more desperate in their attempts to demonize the gay aspects of
Cunanan’s image. After finding hair clippers in a motel room in which Cunanan
supposedly stayed, the Miami police put out a press statement that they believed Cunanan
had shaved his body hair and was now in drag hiding as a woman. This nonsense was promoted
in all seriousness by the police and the news media as a respectable theory. Based on
nothing, and ignoring the elemental fact that most men—unless they are highly
practiced or professional cross-dressers—would be more, not less, obvious in drag.
Clearly it was Cunanan’s openly gay identity that was the driving force behind most
police and media speculation. The media re-creation of Cunanan as a killer drag queen
paints him as the ultimate deviant: the feminized homosexual who has become the male
fantasy of the evil, deadly women: the apotheosis of heterosexual fears of the queer. This
gender-traitor as murderer is resonant of Cunanan’s earlier media image as the
feminized kept boy and the gossipy, gay socialite.
Another media image of Cunanan was that he was an "invisible" yet
"deadly presence." After the Versace murder, almost every news report ended with
a phase like, "In spite of intensive police efforts, Andrew Cunanan cannot be found.
He is a master of disguise." This image of an undetectable danger is a highly
evocative replay of the "hidden homosexual" that stalked the popular imagination
of the 1950s. The queer passing for straight; the apparently happily married suburban man
who led a secret life in the city; the "latent" homosexual that lurked inside of
unsuspecting "straight" men. The fear of the undetectable danger runs rampant in
cultures quick to demonize the outsider and non-conformist. Fear of the Jew posing as
gentile was the nightmare of British Victorian and Nazi culture, as were blacks passing as
white in the American South.
Like Elm Street’s Freddy Kruger, the media constructed an Andrew Cunanan who
lurked on the edges of reality, struck terror into the hearts of "normal"
people. He was, like homosexuality itself, unnamable and indescribable.
There was no need to make Andrew Cunanan any more scary than he was—a suspected
serial killer is pretty scary. But homosexuality is so feared that given half-a-chance the
police and the news media will construct every gay monster they can to reassure themselves
that whatever gay is, it is not them.