Bright Lights Film Journal

The Rage from Nowhere? Arthur Dong’s Licensed to Kill Interviews Murderers of Gay Men

“I’m bad, but I’m locked up.”

When we think about how society reinforces its laws, we usually think of law enforcement agencies doing what they’re contracted to do in protecting people and property. But there are other kinds of laws and other kinds of enforcers. Arthur Dong’s documentary Licensed to Kill explores the “laws” – sometimes written, sometimes simply understood – against homosexuality and the men who take it upon themselves to rid the world of what they’ve been trained to think of as a weak, disposable group – gay men. In this graphic look at a loose subculture of murderers of gays, Dong exposes not simply a group of rampaging sociopaths but, more importantly, a society that carefully creates them.

Dong somehow obtained permission to interview seven of these men, with surprisingly varied profiles. Sgt. Kenneth French is less typical than the others in not targeting gays specifically in a restaurant murder spree that ended with four dead and seven wounded. Still, his act was triggered by what was arguably a coded version of “homosexual panic” – fear brought on by Clinton’s 1993 plan to lift the ban on gays in the military. French exhibits a classic paranoid hetero response to the idea of being forced to be in contact with out-of-the-closet gays. His apparent working-class background is proof of how easy it is to trap one group of have-nots into demonizing another in our culture.

The homosexual panic defense beloved by defense attorneys surfaces more overtly in the case of William Cross (right), who knifed a gay man to death after an alleged pass. Some of Cross’s comments – “It’s like this rage just came from nowhere” – sound as if his attorney invented them, but Cross is believable when he describes being raped at age 7 by a friend of the family, an act that seems to have destroyed any chance he had to develop into a reasonable adult. Cross’s inability to distinguish between a child-rapist and ordinary gay men shows just how successful religious and other irrational groups have been in equating the two.

The devaluation of gay lives is a theme throughout Licensed to Kill. Jeffrey Swinford, who helped kill a man who supposedly came on to him after a pick-up, sees gay men as a nuisance “that oughta be taken care of.” Typically, he counted on the homophobia of local law enforcement, so much so that he was surprised at being caught, and far from remorseful. Indeed, he thought so little about the crime that by the time he was nailed, “I’d really almost forgot about it.” Swinford recalls being asked by his high-school science teacher to “Pick a subject, something you don’t approve of and why.” He chose homosexuality and marshalled Bible quotes as support. One could argue that one of the small steps that probably contributed to Swinford’s murderous act was this teacher’s – read: the system’s – failure to make him think about his hatred of homosexuals. Swinford smiles more than the other men in this film and appears oblivious to the fact that in committing this murder he’s in a sense killed himself: his crime will keep him incarcerated for most of his vital years.

One of the few men here who shows any understanding of what he did is Corey Burley (right), from the projects of Dallas. Burley’s crime, killing a Vietnamese student who came to the U.S. to escape the war, was part of a continuum of violence from an early age that included robberies and assaults. Like the others here, he was socialized to believe that violence is part of the birthright of the hetero male: “When I was growing up, I wanted to be bad,” he says. But he adds ruefully, “Well, look where it’s got me. I’m bad, but I’m locked up.”

The case of Raymond Childs complicates the straightforward notion of gaybashing with issues of class and race. Childs, who is black and working-class, was picked up by a middle-aged, well-off, married white lawyer who, he says, “rushed” to put the make on him. “The anger and you know, the thought of me even getting touched by a man, it made me furious.” While the lawyer could be seen as an exploiter, Childs’ defense is undercut by the fact that he was picked up at a well-known gay cruising spot, that he willingly went to the man’s hotel room, that he killed him brutally (stabbing him 27 times), and that afterward he went on a shopping spree with the man’s money. It’s difficult to reconcile the killer’s panic defense with these facts.

In some ways the most chilling of the group is the serial killer Jay Johnson. At first glance, I thought Johnson was a commentator brought on to add some intellectual perspective to these cases. That’s how articulate he is. Raised in a strict religious household and with the added factor of a mixed-race background, Johnson is the classic self-hating queer whose inability to reconcile the religious beliefs beaten into his head from childhood with his own natural impulses led him first to cruise the parks, then to murder. “I was disgusted with what I was doing,” he says of his sexual liaisons, “and … I thought to myself, `If I shut these places [cruising parks] down, my temptation to do that would be less.” He did this by killing two men and wounding another before he was caught.

Johnson talks at length about the insidious influence of religion on his life, and Licensed to Kill resonates with this disturbing motif, lining up the faces of the larger criminals – Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell – who helped create these killers in their proper place alongside them.