Review: 'Secret City - The Hidden History Of Gay Washington' Separates the Facts From the Political Lore

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday June 2, 2022

Review: 'Secret City - The Hidden History Of Gay Washington' Separates the Facts From the Political Lore

James Kirchick's "Secret City — The Hidden History of Gay Washington" is a history of the tyranny of the political closet when homosexuality was a multipurpose mechanism to control, intimidate, shake down, exploit and otherwise ruin the lives of gay men and women who had to love in secret to serve their country.

The scope of his study, often examined in granular detail, covers decades of buried or altered official history of gay men working in all branches of government.

Kirchick is a gay man and consummate journalist who separates the fact from political lore in search of the discernible, corroborated facts.

The deep background and tangled tales start with the fate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's undersecretary of State, Sumner Welles, who would get drunk on trains and summon Black porters to his compartment for sex. It was widely gossiped about by senators' wives and joked about in the halls of Congress. Welles was a diplomatic star in Europe, and highly competent at gathering sensitive intel and forging critical alliances leading up to WWII, so FDR protected him.

Meanwhile, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover didn't intervene; he had long been the subject of rumors himself, and had in place an elaborate dragnet that could shake down anyone who dared gossip that he was a crossdresser or that Clyde Tolson was his lover.

But the bigger scandal is the fact that the U.S. government blackmailed gay men as spies, the closet coming in handy for officials as the U.S. entered WWII. For the rank-and-file gay soldier, the official line was that they were Section 8 degenerates and unfit for military service, so many were booted out; but countless others were conscripted when the war effort needed boots on the front lines.

Despite such blatant hypocrisy, gay men and women in the military during the war were discovering each other on bases, on deployments, and, crucially, on leave in port cities in the U.S. and overseas — a reality that the government often used to their advantage, again, as it might suit their hypocritical purposes.

After the war ended, Senator Joseph McCarthy launched his self-serving crusade against Communists and gays. The witch hunt he ignited took hold in the late '40s, and his cabal of rabid lawmakers used every angle to get revenge on their political enemies by branding them "commies" and "sexual deviants," both of which fell under the broader category of "anti-American." Gay men in civil service, no matter what their expert skills or records of achievement might be, were entrapped, exposed, and professionally ruined. McCarthy's hatchet man was none other than self-loathing queer lawyer Roy Cohn.

During Harry Truman's presidency, another high-profile case involving gay men was making headlines in the Whittaker Chambers espionage scandal. Chambers threw diplomat Alger Hiss under the queer bus, claiming that they had had sex, and that he had stashed proof of Hiss's communism in a pumpkin patch. Hiss prevailed in court, but was later exposed as a double agent. Kirchick reveals new details in this gay spy vs. gay spy case, the shade cutting both ways.

John F. Kennedy had many gay male friends, and Jackie had even more, as Kirchick chronicles. Officially, the administration was as straight as it gets. The DC police were always on the prowl a block from the White House, at Lafayette Park, a cruising ground for gay men in government. The cops had a field day of official entrapments and shake downs.

The feds were just as rigorous in branding suspected government employees as a security risk .It was decidedly not Camelot for gay Americans in the early 1960s, with homosexuality still a crime in every state.

Kirchick brings particular focus to the fates of the gay men who were victims of the government purges in government in pre-Stonewall years.

In the '70s, rabidly homophobic Richard Nixon, a McCarthy protégé, used the smearing political opponents as his go-to playbook for political advantage. Privately, he would lecture Henry Kissinger about how all the great empires of the world were destroyed by the homosexuals. Fortunately, tricky Dick's methods were shut down when his presidency went up in flames over his Watergate crimes.

Kirchick's often lurid, gossipy details of those morally bankrupt politicians are the real the skeletons that need to fall out of their collective homophobic closets. The gay men who lived double lives at the obsequious service of presidents or party covered their asses by being openly homophobic, legislating against any gay rights bill. The closet has many rooms, especially for gay Republicans in all branches of government. Their betrayals included anti-gay campaigns.

This book goes a long way in exposing some long-rotting American traditions. The damage closeted gay men in government did during the Reagan administration is unconscionable. Years into the AIDS crisis there was no initiative to mobilize a full response to the epidemic. As long as the disease was perceived as just killing homosexuals, it wasn't important to Ronnie and Nancy... until, that is, their Hollywood friends were dying.

Kirchick's history of anti-gay politics in Washington enlightens, fascinates, and repulses us, revisiting the ash heap of sensational political scandals. Just as important in "Secret City" are the portraits of the lives and fates of those who were victimized by their own government for who they were. Their stories are a vital reminder that it is up to us not to let history repeat itself in 2022, as legislative attacks against GLBTQ+ Americans by homophobic politicians are back for a new hate-filled season.

"Secret City — The Hidden History of Gay Washington," by James Kirchick, is available now from Macmillan Publishers.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.