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The High Price of Gay Life in Washington, D.C.

James Kirchick’s riveting history of gay life in Washington, D.C. is a Cold War epic of hypocrisy, surveillance, and survival.

‘Secret City’: The Hidden History of Gay Washington
James Kirchick
Henry Holt
May 2022

For most of its history, Washington, D.C. was a miserable place to be gay. This did not set it apart from most of America. The dominant culture’s (mostly unspoken) laws about sex and gender meant indicating any break with heteronormativity could lead to social ostracization. At the same time, actual laws—which banned everything from specific sex acts to dressing in non-gender-conforming ways—meant just openly existing as a gay person could mean jail time. This was as true in Washington as it was in Los Angeles, New York, or Dayton, Ohio.

The difference between America’s capital and its other cities, according to James Kirchick’s densely detailed, panoramic, and eye-opening new history Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, was that life in the federal seat of power during the Cold War came with an extra layer of paranoia. That fear manifested as extreme state-sponsored homophobia. Everywhere else in America, gayness was perceived as a threat to various orders (familial, religious) that lived primarily in people’s minds. But in Washington, being gay—or, more crucially, being discovered as gay—was seen as a threat to the very security of the nation.

This threat had two components. The first was moral: Well into the 20th century, it was commonly believed that many societal and political calamities (ranging from the collapse of ancient Rome and the Hapsburg empire to the Iran-Contra affair) could be directly tied to the “hidden machinations” of secretive gay cabals, which otherwise serious people in the postwar years called the “Homintern”. The second was political: Many assumed that once an enemy power discovered an American government employee or well-connected private citizen was gay, they could blackmail that person by threatening to reveal their secret. The former belief was absurd fantasy. The latter was based in reality, though of a particularly circuitous variety that used the effects of homophobia to defend preemptive homophobia.

According to Kirchick, being viewed as a threat to the Republic put gay people in a unique bind. In a great irony of American life, Washington became one of the country’s most popular gay meccas even though the level of oppressive surveillance and fear was almost like that of a “police state”. The New Deal and World War II exploded the size of the federal government, turning Washington from a sleepy southern swamp town into a bustling metropolis. The city’s anonymity and the demand for workers answered a need:

Many of those who swarmed into the nation’s capital during the 1930s were gay men and women seeking refuge from the confines of small-town life, lured by the promise of a steady job in a large bureaucracy where they had less chance of standing out.

– James Kirchick

At the same time, the “mass mobilization” of the wartime draft threw gay people together in what one historian quoted by Kirchick called “a nationwide coming out experience”. In Washington, the city’s dedication to socializing combined with wartime hedonism to create a constellation of bars catering to the newly arrived gay and lesbian crowds. This clandestine nightlife with its attendant secret language, signs, and codes—a bipartisan policy of omerta prevailed; a Republican staffer might spot a Democratic congressman at the Chicken Ranch, but neither would say anything—serves as a frenetic backdrop to the decades of intrigue that Kirchick lays out in vivid prose.

Secret City takes readers through the betrayals, repression, vilification, and subterfuge that defined gay life in Washington’s corridors of power from the 1930s until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Though dramatically recounting the passing decades’ broader cultural and political tides, and admirably achieving Kirchick’s stated goal of not segregating “gay history” but integrating it into American history, the book is largely a story of individuals and the prices they paid for their secrets.

For many of these men, the Foreign Service offered good cover in the form of “a respectable career path for confirmed bachelors”. Long overseas tours precluded questions about “the lack of a wife and family”. Drawing from a similar pool of well-bred young men who knew how to keep secrets, the OSS along with its successor the CIA and the State Department would for decades be reputed as havens of homosexuality. Kirchick even makes the convincing argument that much of the decades-long animosity between the FBI and the CIA was due to the former’s suspicion that the latter was riddled with gays.

Many of these men—and, given how locked out of power women have been in Washington, the book is mostly about men—could deserve books of their own.

Sumner Welles, a dashing New England aristocrat and deft foreign policy expert who lived in a luxurious mansion with 15 servants and was rarely seen without his Malacca cane, became undersecretary of state for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and had something of a charmed life. He might have escaped notice for his covert gay activities had it not been for the trips where he got drunk and began propositioning black train porters. Though a close ally of Roosevelt’s, Welles also had many enemies and was forced out in 1943, the first public official to lose his post because of rumors over his sexuality.

Many others followed.

In late 1940s and ‘50s America, homosexuality became almost as feared as communism. The Kinsey Report caused a near panic in 1948 with its suggestion that same-sex attraction was widely prevalent. Vice squads rounded up patrons at gay clubs with impunity. Magazines like Confidential hissed with homophobic insinuations (“fairy”, “limp wrist”, “homo”). Public spectacles like the Alger Hiss trial and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee hearings featured a cast of closeted characters—most notably later Donald Trump consigliere Roy Cohn—and a subtext of gay panic. McCarthy at one point thundered that the State Department was filled with “Communists and queers”. Though the “Red Scare” abated to some degree, the far less known “Lavender Scare” purged gays, some famous but mostly unknown, from government service on the pretext of their being a security threat.

Kirchick acknowledges the frequent attempts by American and Soviet spies to use a target’s homosexuality to trap them—after a tryst with a man in a Moscow hotel in 1957, conservative columnist Joseph Alsop was threatened with blackmail by the KGB but dodged the bullet by confessing his secret to friends in the national security services. But Kirchick tells many sickening stories of careers and lives ended by a purge whose furor had little supporting rationale.

The further Secret City gets from the 1950s, the more Washington’s closet door seemed to open, even if only barely. The Kennedys were a case in point. Robert is portrayed in the book as deeply homophobic, making slurs about James Baldwin. But Jack was comfortable in the company of gay men, whether his longtime confidante Lem Billings or family friend Gore Vidal (who once confided to Jack that Tennessee Williams had watched the future president walk past and said, “Look at that ass”).

As in the rest of America, gay culture became more open and unapologetic. Crusaders like Frank Kameny, a Harvard-trained astronomer fired from the military’s cartographic agency in 1957 for telling investigators that his being gay was “none of their business”, fought a bruising and poverty-stricken but inspiring years-long battle for recognition. The District’s version of Stonewall happened one night in 1970, when the Gay Liberation Front stormed a bar that had discriminated against an openly affectionate male couple, and “trashed” it. Nevertheless, the purges and social ostracization continued year after year. The federal government did not end its prohibition on gays in civil service until 1975.

Of course, the national security state could have simply not treated outed people as lepers no longer worthy of human consideration. But instead, a host of private and public institutions did the work of America’s enemies for them.