In 'Secret City,' author James Kirchick traces the unknown history of gay Washington

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In 1979, thousands s march down Pennsylvania Avenue to dramatize their plea for equal rights.
In 1979, thousands s march down Pennsylvania Avenue to dramatize their plea for equal rights.

Post-World War II, there was something seen as even worse than being a communist in U.S. politics: being gay.

"Being gay was the worst possible thing you could be in American politics. It was worse than being a communist," author James Kirchick says.

As a result, some high ranking members of government were denied national security clearances.

"The belief was that because this was so terrible ... the homosexual would go to any lengths to keep his secret a secret, and if that meant betraying his country ... he would do it," Kirchick says.

But history shows these fears were unfounded.

"The Defense Department did a study in the 1990s where they looked at over 100 cases of espionage, of people giving government secrets to foreign powers," he adds.

"There's not a single example of a gay person doing it because they were blackmailed into doing it."

Today, On Point: How careers and lives were lost through decades of bipartisan homophobia.


James Kirchick, author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington. He's also a columnist for Tablet magazine, writer-at-large for Air Mail, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. (@jkirchick)

Interview Highlights

On the unknown history of gay Washington

“The skills or the traits that make you successful in Washington, things like discretion, being able to keep secrets, being able to work long hours for a boss. Maybe to pick up that phone call at 2 a.m. and, you know, rush over to the Capitol to attend to whatever he needs. These are the sorts of things that during this era of the '40s to the '90s, I think that gay people and really gay men in particular, because let's not forget, this was an era when men ruled Washington. There were very few women in any sort of positions of influence. These are the sorts of jobs that that gay people, I think were sort of uniquely able to do, because when you're living in the closet, you have to be able to master these sorts of traits.

"You also don't have a family to take care of. And so you can devote more time. You can work longer hours. And so particularly with the New Deal and the rise of the federal bureaucracy, you had lots of gay people moving to Washington, particularly from rural areas, trying to escape perhaps more conservative small town life, and seeking a life in the big city, which really is the story of gay people in 20th century America, leaving small towns and coming to big cities.

"So that's why I would say it was often the gayest place in America, the gayest city in America. But there's this paradox. It is also the most anti-gay city in America because the federal government doesn't allow gay people to work in these jobs officially. And so you have lots of gay people hiding. They're forced to construct these closets that they live in. And it sets a very high amount of tension for them working in Washington.”

On Washington D.C.’s gay history, from FDR to Bill Clinton

“Homosexuality has been condemned in sort of Western civilization or Judeo-Christian civilization and certainly in America for hundreds of years. And you can just go back and read the laws that were imposed by the American colonies. And homosexuality was illegal in all 50 states, and it was considered a medical condition. But I think what happens around the World War II or around the late FDR period, is that homosexuality goes from being just a sin or a medical condition to becoming a national security threat. And the reason is because of secrecy, really, the title of my book, and that the United States needs to build a national security bureaucracy for managing secret information, confidential information.

“And this notion of national security becomes a primary concern in Washington. And the fears that gay people or, you know, homosexuals with the term that was used at the time are really sexual deviants or perverts, that they have the worst possible secret imaginable and that they would go to any length to keep it. And that therefore, that makes them very susceptible to blackmail. And so it's not until the Roosevelt administration that we see a government official being hounded out of office, a high ranking one, actually. Sumner Wells, the Under-Secretary of State. This is the opening chapters of my book.

"He's a very talented diplomat, a friend of the Roosevelt family. But his enemies, his rivals within the administration, obtain information that he's gay. And they try to use this and they use it successfully to get him out of government. And I don't think that if this had happened in the 1920s or 1930s, I'm not sure that it would have risen to the level that it did. But with America entering the world as a global superpower, they could use this argument that, well, Wells is a homosexual. He's therefore susceptible to blackmail by foreign powers. So that's why the book begins with World War II.”

On uncovering Washington D.C.’s hidden gay history

“I'm gay, and I think as a gay person, we don't have a way of learning our history through, you know, older relatives or family. It's not like if you're African American and you can learn the history of slavery through your ancestors, or if you're Jewish, you learn the history of your people at the Passover Seder table. If you're gay, you don't have that generational connection to other gay people. You have to discover it for yourself. And so that's what really motivated me to pursue this project.”

On the Reagan administration and the AIDS crisis

“One of the things, or I would say themes that I discovered in this book, is that there's a real sense of estrangement and fear around the Reagan people. Ronald Reagan himself, his wife, Nancy, his top advisers, of being seen as gay. And then there's the sense that because he comes from Hollywood, he's an actor who comes from an actor's background, that he may himself be perceived as gay. And there's actually a line in one of his top aide, Lyn Nofziger's books, his memoir, that they were concerned when he was running for governor in 1966. That because of his Hollywood association, he might be perceived as gay.

"And in Reagan's memoir that he published in 1965, before announcing his run for governor, he's talking about one of the films that he was making in 1939, Dark Victory with the actress Bette Davis. And he's basically playing her gay best friend. And of course, they couldn't be explicit about this. Because you could not portray homosexuality explicitly in the movies. There was a code, the MPAA code against its portrayals of homosexuality. But the director was giving Reagan instructions. And this is the way that Reagan recounts it. He says, he wanted me to play the role as if I was the sort of fellow who could sit in the girls 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 put off by this and offended and upset of having to play a role this way. And so even being an actor and even portraying a gay character on screen makes him uncomfortable. And then in 1967, the first year of his governorship, he's rocked by a gay scandal. When a newspaper columnist alleges that there was a ring of gay men working in his gubernatorial office in Sacramento, and that they had had an orgy at a timeshare house in Lake Tahoe.

"And this is published in newspapers across the country. And Reagan is furious about this. He's furious that this becomes public. And then in 1980, one of the things that I uncovered, really one of the big scoops in the book, is that a group of Republicans, actually moderate Republicans, bring new accusations of gay advisers surrounding Ronald Reagan to the Washington Post.

"They allege that there's a network of right-wing homosexuals basically controlling Ronald Reagan as if he were a manchurian candidate. This is actually, you know, in a memo that one of these congressmen wrote. And I found it. And they brought it to Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor of the Washington Post. And he gets his best team of reporters to investigate this. And then, of course [Ronald and Nancy Reagan] had a lot of gay friends. I mean, Nancy, in particular, there's a a page in my book. And the inserts, the photo inserts, over the entire page called All the First Lady's Men. And it's photos of Nancy with all her gay courtiers and hairdressers and fashion designers. So there's this aura of gayness around the Reagans.

"I don't know how else to describe it. And I think that, coupled with the fact that he had this new block of voters who were supporting him, evangelical Christians, they're a new force in American politics. They don't emerge until the late 1970s, and they really propel him into office. And I think there's just this hesitancy and this fear of being seen too close to anything gay. And so when you play that tape of that press conference, and you hear the laughter and the sense of distancing and just, you know, there's no one in here in this building that has this disease. I think it reflects that. I would also point out, by the way, it's not just ... the Reagan administration that's treating this disease as sort of a joke.

"You can listen to all those reporters laughing about it. You know, the entire press room was laughing, was laughing at this question. And in fact, the reporter who asked the question about AIDS, it tells you a lot about the times. It was a man named Lester Kinsolving who was a kind of crank, right wing conspiracy theorist. And so he was the guy asking about AIDS. No mainstream journalist was even bothering to ask about this disease that was killing, you know, disproportionately gay men. That was the state of the conversation in America at that time.”

On lessons from Washington D.C.'s hidden gay history

“I definitely think that to be a powerful person in Washington in this period, it was impossible to be gay or to be openly gay. And so that's certainly true. And therefore, it was very rare or almost impossible to see an openly gay official, you know, positively pushing for change. But I do think that you have to look a little bit lower down the bureaucratic ladder during the power structure. And you have to understand that in 1975, the Civil Service Commission lifted its ban on gay people being able to work in the civil service.

"And this actually puts Washington, D.C., far ahead most other states in the country, which it would take many years for the rest of the country to adopt anti-discrimination statutes. And so this makes Washington, D.C., it makes the federal bureaucracy actually quite advanced on the issue of gay inclusion. And so in the end of my book, I say, you know, there are all these people whose names we don't know because they were congressional staffers. They were people who worked at the Department of Labor or, you know, any of these government departments, you know, just kind of regular bureaucrats.

"I mean, that word has a lot of negative connotations, but they're just thousands of gay men and women who got up every day and went to work. And that put Washington actually far ahead of other states and cities. And I think that was actually really, really important. And they might not have been chiefs of staff. They might not have been senators. They might not have been the most important, powerful people in Washington. But you had this openness and this visibility in Washington among regular, normal people that was far ahead of its time.”

Book Excerpt

Excerpt from 'Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington' by James Kirchick. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Related Reading

New York Magazine: "The Long, Sordid History of the Gay Conspiracy Theory" — "A specter is haunting America — the specter of sexual degeneracy."

POLITICO: "The Plot to Out Ronald Reagan" — "A group of Republicans tried to stymie what they alleged was a nefarious homosexual network within the campaign of their own party’s standard-bearer. More than 40 years later, the story can finally be told."

This program aired on June 2, 2022.


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