Vulgar Favors

You ain’t really wild, you a tourist.

— Kendrick Lamar, King’s Dead


Gianni Versace was murdered by Andrew Cunanan 21 years ago this morning. I finished reading Maureen Orth’s exhaustive accounting of how that tragedy came to pass just last night. An impulse pickup at the library a week ago, I had no idea how gripping the story would be even though I knew the now Emmy-nominated season of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace had used it as it’s source material.

The 90s were wild.

Cunanan’s spree-killing over two months across four states occurred just after the OJ Simpson trial and the death of JonBenet Ramsay. Princess Diana—a friend of Gianni Versace’s—would die being chased by paparazzi just a few weeks later. Tabloid television and the 24-hour news cycle are coming into their own. Gay/Queer culture is alien to the mainstream media, treating just the mere mention of the word homosexual as scandal.

What is made even more evident in the book is how all of this led to Cunanan not being found after his first three murders—which would have been difficult to prevent—and allowed for two others to fall in the days and weeks after them.

The police and investigative bureaus didn’t find much compassion for gay victims and seemed unwilling to delve deeper into a community foreign to them to understand their killer. Fear of being embarrassed like the police and district attorneys in Los Angeles after OJ made their choices both overly cautious and bumbling and likely got at least one person not initially in Cunanan’s cross-hairs killed as a result.

Even Orth’s own words show how uncomfortable much of America was with discussing the hidden world of gay men. While her compassion for Cunanan’s victims comes through, her portrayal of his life and the people in it before he becomes a serial killer seeks to shock and titillate. The whole world of male homosexuality is all sex, drugs, pornography, bondage, perversion, vanity, and excess. All of that even though she’s talking continuously to people who seem to have strong ties to each other with love, friendship, affection, and care for each other hiding in plain sight behind their explanations of club culture and how one must live when society taxes you significantly for coming out.

This is what Ryan Murphy’s retelling of this story gets so well. The tragedy of Andrew Cunanan’s story is not just in the lives he snatched but also in the way they were forced to live before he took them. Only Versace was out to everyone who knew him. Three of Cunanan’s other victims (two of whom were gay and another seems likely) lived double lives tortured by the choices they had to make long before Andrew did so physically.

The show conveys the complexities of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” decade in a way that a book published in the year after the murders probably can’t. We didn’t have the language or the hindsight for it.

Vulgar Favors, though, is still a compelling read. It is a grand reminder of how far we’ve come and how far, still, we have to go.

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