Queer Reading: Author explores DC's gay past in 'Secret City'

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday July 20, 2022
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James Kirchick wrote "Secret City," about the gay history of Washington. D.C.
James Kirchick wrote "Secret City," about the gay history of Washington. D.C.

A new book, "Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington," is an exhaustive recounting of homosexuality in the federal government, organized by presidencies starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration and extending through Bill Clinton. It shows how gay men primarily served in public positions of power but, privately, had to hide their true selves.

There was no more dangerous or threatening secret to a political career in the 20th century than being gay. The book, by James Kirchick, is the story of how the closet impacted the lives of those who worked inside the system (as opposed to out activists who protested these homophobic social norms in the streets), especially Republicans who had to balance their sexuality with their conservatism. It's less about revolution than assimilation as gays and lesbians slowly made homosexuality more visible and, hence, tolerable.

The book, published by Henry Holt and Co., aims to integrate gay history with American history into a coherent whole, showing how gay people have shaped the country at every level, whether they be clerks or high officials, to break open their closet doors and reveal finally the impact they had and could have had, before they were exposed or fired. "Secret City" ends with Clinton, who lifted Dwight Eisenhower's ban on government security clearances for LGBTQ people.

Kirchick, a gay Washingtonian, is a conservative journalist, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and a columnist at Tablet magazine. Kirchick, 39, spoke to the Bay Area Reporter in a recent phone interview. The book uses thousands of pages of declassified documents, interviews with over 100 people, and unearthed material from presidential libraries and other archives.

"Washington has the highest per capita of LGBTQ people, according to the most recent census, but there's also this paradox in that it was also the most anti-gay city in America because the federal government didn't allow gay people to work in these jobs officially," Kirchick said. "And so you have lots of gay people hiding. They're forced to construct these closets that they have to live in. And it sets a very high amount of tension for them working there."

According to Kirchick, the fight for gay acceptance has always been a struggle against silence. "If something is kept secret and you can't talk about it, conspiratorial views can develop and it can breed hatred," he said.

The mere suggestion that a person might be gay destroyed reputations, ended careers, and ruined lives, as the book details.

"What happens around World War II is that homosexuality goes from being just a sin or a medical condition/mental disorder to becoming a national security threat," Kirchick said. "At the height of the Cold War, fear of homosexuality became intertwined with the growing threat of communism, leading to a purge of gay men and lesbians from the federal government, in what was later termed the 'Lavender Scare.'"

Kirchick writes, "Even at the height of the Cold War, it was safer to be a Communist than a homosexual. A Communist could break with the party. A homosexual was forever tainted. ... Still both groups were heavily surveilled, vilified by society, subject to arrest, and threatened with confinement in mental institutions."

Kirchick asserts, "Across the broad sweep of American history, no minority group has witnessed a more rapid transformation in its status, in the eyes of their fellow citizens, than gay people in the second half of the twentieth century."

The book is filled with fascinating and often unknown stories of people long forgotten. Pierre L'Enfant, who designed the streets, squares, and parks in which generations of gay Washingtonians would meet each other, was a lifelong bachelor "sensitive in style and dress," possessing an "artistic and fragile temperament."

Sumner Welles (whom Winston Churchill credited with coining the phrase "No comment" in the 1940s), the brilliant diplomatic adviser and under-secretary of state and friend of FDR, was forced to resign for trying when drunk to buy oral sex from two male Pullman train porters. His rivals obtained this incriminating information and used it successfully to get him out of government. Roosevelt tried to protect Welles but feared a scandal.

However, Roosevelt was willing to conduct a homophobic smear campaign against David Walsh, a gay senator from Massachusetts who was also a New Deal adversary. "Progressive liberals, considered the enlightened-minded people of the time, were more than happy to use gay baiting and smear tactics against their political enemies. Joe Welch, the man who destroyed Joseph McCarthy, also called lawyer Roy Cohn a fairy on national TV," Kirchick said.

There is playwright Tennessee Williams' remark to writer Gore Vidal, "Look at that ass," referring to John F. Kennedy and Vidal jokingly replying, "You can't cruise our next president." Kennedy took the comment as a compliment. He was remarkably relaxed and comfortable with gay men and didn't feel threatened by them. "JFK had his own sexual secrets, his own sex life, which would have shocked Americans at that time if they had known about them, so maybe that made him sensitive to the plights of other men who had sexual secrets," said Kirchick.

Oliver Sipple, a former U.S. Marine, saved President Gerald Ford's life by grabbing the gun of radical Sara Jane Moore as she attempted to shoot him in San Francisco on September 22, 1975. Gay politico Harvey Milk outed Sipple to the news media, saying he should be viewed as a hero, but the closeted Sipple became emotionally distraught and depressed when his parents disowned him. He was found dead in a Tenderloin apartment February 2, 1989.

Midge Costanza, one of President Jimmy Carter's White House aides, was a lesbian though not public about it. She invited LGBTQ leaders from across the nation to the White House to provide the administration with a briefing on gay issues. The March 26, 1977 meeting was the first time LGBTQ rights advocates had been invited for an official meeting at the White House.

Kirchick interviewed Bob Bauman, a Republican congressmember from Maryland, who lost his seat in 1981 when his homosexuality became public.

Kirchick also talked with a guy who had gay sex on the USS Sequoia, the presidential yacht, as well as longtime D.C. socialite and hostess Sally Quinn, who told him her late husband and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee's older brother was gay, which made him open to their civil rights.

Then there's tales about the "Fruit Loop" of the Dupont Circle pickup scene in the 1960s, the "gay corner" of the Congressional Cemetery, and the establishment of the first gay bookstore, Lambda Rising. Sadly, the book also mentions the first and only suicide by a member of Congress, Senator Lester Hunt of Wyoming, who killed himself after the 1953 arrest of his 25-year-old son for soliciting an undercover vice cop.

"Secret City" was published in May. Photo: Courtesy Amazon  

Waldron case
Kirchick was most fascinated by the Robert Waldron case. Waldron was a close aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson and was almost considered a son, as Johnson had no male children. He accompanied Johnson all over the world and was very friendly with Lady Bird and their daughters. When Waldron had a background check to join the White House staff, a friend told them he was gay, which destroyed his career and life in politics. Waldron wrote a very poignant forgiving letter to his betrayer that is printed in the book. This was a story even the thorough Johnson biographer Robert Caro missed.

For Kirchick, the hero of his book is Frank Kameny (1925-2011), the Harvard-trained astronomer who was fired in 1957 from the U.S. Army Map Service for being gay. He spent decades trying to get this job back. Kirchick calls him "the first citizen to challenge the federal government over its discrimination against homosexuals by actually attaching his name to the case rather than to post it pseudonymously."

In 1961, Kameny founded the Mattachine Society and in its statement of purpose wrote, "to secure for homosexuals the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as proclaimed for all men by the Declaration of Independence and to secure for homosexuals the basic rights and liberties established by the word and the spirit of the Constitution." This was the first organized political meeting of gay people and occurred eight years before the Stonewall riots in New York City.

"Frank Kameny is the first openly gay person in America. In 1957, he's saying, 'Yeah, I'm gay. I'm a homosexual, and you have to treat me like an equal,' which took guts," Kirchick said. "There was this whole notion of gay government employees being a threat to national security because they're blackmailable. But once you're out of the closet, then you can't be blackmailed."

Kirchick cites a study commissioned by the State Department in the early 1990s before the gays in the military debate, which found that in over 100 cases of Americans who had committed espionage, not a single one of them did it because they were being blackmailed for their homosexuality. That myth however, gained currency.

"In the late 1940s and early 1950s, homosexuality was considered the worst possible character trait and logically it would seem that homosexuals would do anything to protect this secret, including giving sensitive confidential information to a foreign power," Kirchick said. "It's not true, but goes back to a point made by Kameny: I'm not ashamed of being gay. There's nothing wrong with it. It's wrong to fire me, and if the federal government would stop firing anyone who's gay, you would remove the incentive of foreign powers to blackmail gay people."

The year before Kameny died, he attended a White House ceremony with President Barack Obama in which John Berry, the gay director of the Office of Personnel Management, issued a formal apology to Kameny, who "cheerfully accepted it," Kirchick said.

Another exemplar for Kirchick was the gay African American Bayard Rustin. "It was very difficult for a gay person to come out for their own civil rights, like Kameny, as most gays didn't have that sort of courage to risk everything," Kirchick said. "Instead, they could channel that energy into the African American civil rights struggle and learn lessons they would later apply to gay liberation.

"Rustin was the organizer for the 1963 March on Washington, the most important event in the history of the civil rights movement," he said. "The racist Senator Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina) wanted to derail the march and denounced Rustin on the Senate floor as a gay sexual pervert because he had been arrested in Pasadena on a morals charge a decade earlier. That arrest record was almost certainly given to Thurmond by the FBI. However, Martin Luther King stood by Rustin and didn't fire him. In fact, he even spoke at the rally. Rustin became the first gay person to survive an outing. He went on to a successful career as a human rights activist."

California Governor Gavin Newsom posthumously pardoned Rustin in February 2020, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

World War II
Kirchick considers World War II a seminal event in gay history. "The historian John D'Emilio calls it a national coming out for gay people because of the mass mobilization due to the war effort," he said. "You had gay people coming into contact with one another in numbers never seen before. America was much more a rural country then, so many gay people felt isolated and alone, like they were the only gay person in the nation. The war brought them all together, the start of an evolving gay consciousness. After the war many gay veterans moved to cities, in a mass urbanization which led to the beginnings of a gay subculture."

Gay men seemed to pop up in Foreign Service, State Department, and CIA positions. Kirchick explained what made them good spies. "They cultivated useful skills that would be useful in espionage, such as pretending to lie, the use of coded language, and to detect codes in other people, as well as the need for discretion, the ability to notice subtleties, the ability to be diplomatic and work your way around delicate situations, and to speak other languages," he said. "The founding members of the modern State Department and the CIA were all upper-class men, who possessed these skills."

Surprise at Reagan rumors
The biggest surprise Kirchick discovered were the gay rumors surrounding Ronald Reagan. "There was this fear around the Reagan people of Reagan himself, his wife Nancy, his top advisers of being seen as gay. Because he came from Hollywood, an actor with an actor's background, others might perceive him as gay. There's a line from one of his top aides, Lyn Nofziger, who in his memoir said that when Reagan was running for governor of California in 1966, because of his Hollywood association, others might see him as gay," he said.

In Reagan's own 1965 memoir, he related an incident while he was making the film "Dark Victory" with actress Bette Davis. He's basically playing her gay best friend, but they couldn't be explicit about this. But the director Edmund Goulding told Reagan to play "the role as if he was the sort of fellow who could sit in the girl's dressing room and dish with the ladies while they were getting dressed. Which is a very long, sort of euphemistic way of describing a gay man. And he's very offended by this and upset to having to play a role this way, uncomfortable portraying a gay character," Kirchick said.

"During his first year as governor, he's rocked by a gay scandal, where a newspaper columnist alleged that there was a ring of gay men working in his Sacramento office and they had had an orgy at a timeshare house in Lake Tahoe. This was published in newspapers across the country, which infuriated Reagan," he said.

"Then in 1980, when he's running for president, a group of moderate Republicans brought a new accusation of gay advisers surrounding Reagan to the Washington Post. They alleged there's a 'clandestine right-wing homosexual cabal' with almost a religious zeal against communism controlling Reagan as if he were a Manchurian candidate. They brought it to Ben Bradlee and he got his best team of reporters to investigate this and found no basis for it," said Kirchick.

"Of course, Reagan and his wife Nancy had many gay friends, with Nancy having many gay courtiers, hairdressers, and fashion designers surrounding her," he added. "So there was this hesitancy and fear of being seen too close to anything gay, which might explain why their administration distanced themselves from the AIDS crisis." Kirchick includes a draft of Reagan's statement when his friend actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS, in which the word "profoundly" is crossed out before "saddened," along with the line, "we will miss him greatly."

Kirchick also references the hypocrisy of Terry Dolan, co-founder and chairman of the National Conservative Political Action Committee, who was a proponent of family values and opposed gay rights. He was a closeted homosexual who frequented leather bars and died of AIDS in 1986. He advised Reagan and his brother, Anthony, was Reagan's chief political speechwriter. With people like Terry Dolan populating the government, Kirchick ranks Reagan's as "the gayest of any presidential administration yet."

After writing the book, Kirchick said it's influenced the way he views politics today.

"We're going through a moral panic right now with this 'grooming' discourse and this 'Don't Say Gay' law in Florida," he said. "And often when you have moral panics, sexual minorities get targeted. So in the 1950s, there was a moral panic around homosexuality stemming from the Red Scare. Then in the 1980s was the child sex-abuse moral panic, with all those stories about satanic rituals and children being raped in daycare centers. And now QAnon is a kind of social hysteria that has a sexual component to it.

"So you often find recurring cycles of moral panics using accusations of sexual degeneracy against your political adversaries," he added. "We should be very skeptical about claims of conspiracies and sexual deviation — they're almost always false. In the book I show that all these claims that were made about gay people were wrong, especially about being blackmailed. It's definitely made me skeptical of whatever the hysteria-du-jour is."

Kirchick believes that for LGBTQ people the struggle for gay rights is over.

"The movement has achieved nearly everything it needs for gay people in terms of equal rights and legal rights and protections, we are equal citizens, full stop," he said. "Instead of fighting this pointless war over wedding cakes, it should declare unilateral victory. That doesn't mean there's not homophobia, which we see clearly. The debates have now shifted to gender identity and transgenderism."

For Kirchick the next frontline of fighting homophobia is overseas. "I think that's where we should be directing our attention, the real medieval treatment of gay people in places like Iran, Uganda, China, or Russia," he said. "Basically, countries that are not democracies are really suffering."

Kirchick sees several lessons readers can take away after finishing his book. "I think it's important to learn about the patriotism of these people who wanted to work for a government that didn't want them," he said. "It reminds me of Black soldiers in World War II fighting in a segregated unit. They genuinely believed in what they were doing, but they were still being discriminated against.

"Secondly, the perseverance of these people who served their country when their country didn't want them is important to acknowledge," he added. "Our country was denied a massive amount of talent, and it was a massive waste of energy and resources to investigate patriotic citizens because of who they loved. So much money and effort was wasted hunting down gay people and kicking them out, or keeping them out of politics in the first place. How many patriotic, talented people were there whose talents we didn't benefit from?

"Overall, I think it's an incredible journey," Kirchick said. "To assess the full scale of the damage that the fear of homosexuality wrought on the American political landscape, one must take into account not only the careers ruined and the lives cut short, but also the possibilities thwarted. I feel enormous gratitude for the people who came before. For the people who went through this suffering so I wouldn't have to."

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