- The Parable of Kitty Genovese, the New York Times, and the Erasure of Lesbianism
The 1964 rape and murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in New York City shocked the city, the nation, and the world, but not because a young white woman had been viciously assaulted in public. Media attention instead focused immediately on “thirty-eight witnesses”—men and women living nearby in seemingly safe, semi-suburban Kew Gardens—who allegedly did not want to “get involved” by going to her aid. The New York Times reported that, despite their awareness of the brutal assault that took place just outside their apartment windows, no one called the police. In subsequent articles from the Times the failure of these witnesses to act became symptomatic of a city in a crisis of apathy and an example of a psychic illness threatening the body politic. Unlike other contemporaneous tales of urban crime that offered detailed descriptions of the young women involved, the victim in this case—a twenty-eight-year-old Italian American bar manager who lived in Queens with her female lover—was reduced rhetorically to a chalk outline on the sidewalk: editor A. M. Rosenthal’s accounts in the New York Times erased her from the story.1 [End Page 273]
Why were the details of her life omitted from the narrative of her death? In this article I argue that the pervasive homophobia of the era, including at the nation’s most powerful newspaper, transformed Kitty Genovese into a cipher because of her intimate relationships with women. Filling in some of the blanks of her life provides a fuller portrait of a vivacious young woman about whom little is known. The Genovese narrative, problematic from its inception, not only incorrectly condemned the Kew Gardens “witnesses” but also suppressed the uncomfortable facts of Genovese’s life in service to the construction of a contemporary parable, one whose origins are located in the volatile interplay of changing discourses of race, gender, sexuality, and pathology in mid-1960s America. As expressed in coverage in the New York Times, concerns over nonnormative gender and sexual expressions intersected with fears of growing apathy among the populace. Both were used to warn of the dangers of urban “sickness.”2
The absence of information about Genovese’s lesbianism in the press accounts of her death was not due to any sensitivity about printing the sexual histories of the female victim of a violent crime. The heterosexual involvements of two young white women killed in New York City six months before Genovese were prominently featured in stories about their deaths.3 The contrast with Genovese—also a young white woman living and working independently in the city—is glaringly apparent. Few facts about her made it into print beyond her age, home address, and place of employment. One of the reasons why Genovese’s private life was erased can be discerned from analyzing the Times’ coverage of homosexuality in the early 1960s. Larry Gross and Charles Kaiser, among others, have documented the antigay bias in the Times in the early 1960s; furthermore, there were at least a dozen Times articles from 1960 to 1964 that promoted the notion of homosexual pathology to the paper’s readers, a remnant of early twentieth-century medical opinion updated and promulgated in the Cold War era by psychiatrists and psychoanalysts.4 An accurate depiction [End Page 274] of Genovese and the female lover who mourned her likely would have shifted the focus of media attention to her sexuality and torpedoed the Times’ emphasis on urban apathy. Kitty Genovese’s same-sex relationships placed her at the margins of contemporary social norms and almost certainly would have disqualified her as a sympathetic victim had they been made public. This was true even ten years after her death. Despite revelations of her lesbianism in 1974, Genovese remained a blank slate. The Times would not incorporate the details of her personal life until 2004, when her lover Mary Ann Zielonko discussed their intimate relationship in interviews with a freelance reporter and on National Public Radio. It was only then that the erasure of Genovese’s life began to be reversed.