A Compelling New History of Gay Washington

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History, when given to a lazy narrator, is just a series of facts, strung together, often in sequential order. This one gave way to Thatwho has brought about That as told in a vacuum. That’s why so many American college students know that World War I started when a nihilistic secret society murdered the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne—and all that goes much further is a gray blob of battles, military inventions, and diplomatic treaties that serve as a pretext for the Second World War.

Stories and arguments are important in history, and for most Americans, that’s why many an American history teacher can spend weeks studying World War II, part of the mythology that editors’ founder Henry Luce called “The American Century” in 1941. called. To live editorialThat reliance on stories is also why, for so many students, American history barely makes its way into the Korean War and certainly not into Vietnam or even the Gulf War. Those stories are less easy to tell.

In his new book James Kirchick breaks through those patterns and tells a robust and meaningful history of his city. Secret City: The Secret History of Gay Washington is a comprehensive tour of DC from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration to the Bill Clinton years. Cleverly written with a flexible aperture to capture the big picture of a moment and narrow it down to the smallest detail, the book brings together extensive original source documents from archives, memoirs and an astute sense of political history and its associated tragedies. This is not so much a homo history of DC as it is history of Washington as experienced by its gay power players – figures who worked with their straight colleagues to bring the country on a post-WWII basis, address the emerging civil rights movement and contend with a Cold War that made everyone paranoid. (Spoiler alert: They’re mostly white males, regardless of their sexual partners.)

The book will be published on Tuesday, the eve of Pride Month. The interview has been slightly edited.

Elliott: Admittedly, I was skeptical of the assumption that it was more dangerous to be gay than a communist during the Cold War, but you convinced me. How did you come to that realization?

Kirchick: I specifically mention the Whittaker Chambers case where we see this guy who comes out as a communist or former communist.

ElliottReformed even.

Kirchick: A reformed communist, you can. Some of the most prominent figures in the early American conservative movements were former communists. The concept of ‘conversion therapy’ had not yet taken hold. That’s an evangelical thing that happens in the 1970s. So that was one way.

People who were named as communists would come out in public and defend themselves against communists. There was none of that during the early years of the Lavender Scare.

I also saw it in the person of Frank Kameny. So he was the first person to come out, while leading up to him there were hundreds or maybe thousands of gays who lost their jobs, just melted back into oblivion.

Elliott: And that had tragic consequences.

Kirchick: I’m sure there were people accused of communism leading to suicide and all, but I would expect it to be much higher among gays.

Elliott: You also have the next of kin of the accused. You have some examples of the fact that even the same job costs people their lives and livelihoods.

Kirchick: Being gay at this point in history also meant being a communist, when it wasn’t necessarily the opposite.

Elliott: I don’t know if you did this on purpose, but you really emphasized the puritan roots of this country. Was that something you were trying to illustrate, or is that just a bull’s eye I picked up by accident?

Kirchick: There was a moral panic similar to the Salem Witch Trials, which was most famously used by Arthur Miller with The melting pot† The difference here is that there were no witches in Salem. There were communists in the US government, just not in the numbers Joe McCarthy claimed. There was a real witch hunt among homosexuals. There was no instance of a gay person being a traitor or passing on information because he was being blackmailed for being gay.

Elliott: But it was still a number of people. Ninety-one is the first public record of people being fired for being gay.

Kirchick: The 91 figure came from Deputy Secretary of State John Peurifoy in 1950 and made the first kind of confession that gay men had been fired. What started the Lavender Scare was this confession because no one knew this problem existed. However, there is no real figure. Estimates range from 5,000 to 15,000 people. It’s impossible to know because many of them quit before they could be discovered, were pressured to quit, or were never implemented. Many records have been destroyed.

Elliott: Because you bring the records forward, you are casting a very wide net with this project. How did you find out where to go? I mean, for example, the unpublished diaries, how did you track them down?

Kirchick: What I did was create a timeline and I read all the general literature on the subject, so I knew FDR was going to be Sumner Welles’ story. Yes. And I knew that David Walsh’s story had to play a part. I knew Whittaker Chambers was going to be a story. I was aware of the whole gay OSS [Office of Strategic Services, an early iteration of the CIA] thing, because there’s a chapter about it in a book about the early days of the OSS, and there’s a chapter about Donald Downes that refers to him as a homosexual. The man who wrote that book doesn’t give it much thought.

I would then dig deeper, read the newspaper articles and then look for the primary source, the archives. And then there were last minute things, like the story of Robert Waldron, an LBJ assistant who evaded Robert Caro. There is one mention of him in Caro – he has nothing to do with being gay.

There were some papers opened in the LBJ library dealing with Walter Jenkins, and there was a signed confession he wrote for the FBI from his hospital bed. He named Robert Waldron as a fellow potential homosexual. I knew he had to have an FBI file when Walter Jenkins named him after J. Edgar Hoover. So I filed a FOIA request, which could take years.

I happened to be lucky. I wrote an article in The Wall Street log on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, and the chief archivist of the United States read it and wrote me a nice email and told me to use the archives. I answered, Well, Mr. Chief Archivist, is there anything you can help me with? A few months later, I got a thousand-page, fully declassified, unedited FBI file for Robert Waldron. Now I had this totally original story.

One day I was leafing through Ben Bradlee’s papers at the University of Texas. And I came across this map titled Ronald Reagan, Accusations 1980† All the notes of this research they’ve made come into this crazy story about him being controlled by a right-wing cabal of homosexuals.

Elliott: How long were you working on this project?

Kirchick: I came up with the idea in 2009 but didn’t get the contract until 2014. I only really started working on this book in 2018.

Elliott: The other theme running through so much of this is that keeping secrets was a way of surviving in Washington in the 20th century. Is that still true?

Kirchick: No. Because how long will the secret remain a secret in this city? Just look at the Trump administration. None of those people could keep a secret.

Someone like Joe Alsop could be protected because people would keep secrets, even his worst enemies. Art Buchwald was emailed pictures of him, naked with a man. If Jim Acosta received incriminating photos of Tucker Carlson in the mail, would he be protecting Tucker Carlson from an ancient notion of honor? Of course not.

Elliott: There are some really talented people who have been fired from government service in the National Security Area. What was the price the United States paid for that?

Kirchick: Most people thought gays were a security threat, that it was a disease, and that they were incompatible with government services. We will never know the full cost. Look at the case of Sumner Welles, who was one of the most supportive cabinet members regarding taking in Jewish refugees during World War II. He was thrown out. Could he have changed history on that front in a more positive direction? Could be.

Elliott: It almost seems like before there was a Deep State, there was a deep state of gays.

Kirchick: There was a fear of a deep state of gays. The conspiracy rhetoric is very similar to that of the fears of the Homintern, the secret underground network that is plotting to undermine the country.

Elliott: So what has changed?

Kirchick: It required gays to come out. They never used the word homosexual during the David Walsh case. Through all those New York series After In articles they don’t use the word homosexual once. So that’s your question about why homosexuality was worse than communism. We talked a lot about communism. You couldn’t talk about homosexuality.

Elliott: It is the difference between an ideology and an identity.

Kirchick: You can choose your ideology. An identity was seen as inextricably linked to your character.

Elliott: I am curious about your treatment of Roy Cohn as a more complex figure than I had realized.

Kirchick: Most people don’t know Roy Cohn based on the books he’s written or seen him on television. They know him because Pacino plays him in Angels in America† I think Roy Cohn was a terrible human being, but I think all the people who behaved badly under this specter of homosexuality, the real villain is the closet. If there is one villain in this book, it is the social fear that our country had for gays.

Elliott: What will the next century of gay politics in this city look like?

Kirchick: To be honest, I don’t see much of gay politics in the future. As homosexuality becomes an accepted variety of life in America, I think the political veil of homosexuality will decrease drastically. I think you’ll see the percentage of gays voting Republican vs. Democrat will be similar to that of the country in general. It will not be associated with links and as it has been since the 1980s. I think it’s just an increasingly outdated concept.

Elliott: Finally, this is a book that is heavy on gay men. Where are the lesbians?

Kirchick: This is because this is a book about political power in Washington. Unfortunately, political power in this city from 1933 to 1995 was almost exclusively in the hands of white men. That’s why the Lavender Scare didn’t really affect lesbians, because women weren’t able to have security clearances. Their sexuality was not controlled and monitored. There aren’t that many lesbians in the book, not by my choice, just because of the subject.

Elliott: Thank you very much. This was fun.

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write to Philip Elliott at [email protected]

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