James Kirchick's history of gay power


Secret City, James Kirchick's 800-page tome on the history of gays and lesbians in Washington, D.C., is not a book about gay politics. It is a book about politics. More importantly, it is a book about the nation's capital, which is to say it’s about power as well as the gay people who lived in the shadow of its marketplace — the ones who bought it, sold it, used it, lost it, and fought it.

This history begins with the creation of the district's secret gay underground in FDR's administration. It ends with Bill Clinton's, when shifting political attitudes and the full brunt of the AIDS crisis made maintaining this “secret city” less necessary and also less possible. The gays and lesbians in Kirchick's book form a rotating cast of Forrest Gumps, appearing at the center of every major political event of the latter half of the 20th century. This allows the book to serve well as a general history of the country, no small feat in a subject area where too often, major events merely serve as scene-setting and background noise. Kirchick refreshingly portrays the gay Washington underground as a parallel and central world to the seat of American power instead of merely a gay ghetto. In rejecting the gay ghetto, he is able to break through its dueling confines of heroism and victimhood and portray gays and lesbians in all of their ambition, pain, selfishness, love, vanity, intelligence, stupidity, cruelty, and kindness. It is, in many ways, one of the most human works of history written this decade so far. Much like the gay community itself, the book contains people from every social class, color, personality, and profession, from disabled and impoverished veterans to the country's second most powerful diplomat.

Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington; By James Kirchick; Henry Holt and Co.; 848 pp., $38.00

Kirchick wisely starts his book with the story of Sumner Welles, FDR's undersecretary of state. If you don't count J. Edgar Hoover, whose homosexuality Kirchick takes an agnostic stand on, Welles is by far the most high ranking closeted bureaucrat in the book, and his story underscores FDR's views of homosexuality: indifferent when it involved his friends and indignant when it involved his enemies. This scandal and the twin scandal of the outing of Sen. David Walsh serve as Pandora's boxes. It was at this point that homosexuality was forged into a sophisticated political weapon that fundamentally changed the course of American politics in the 20th century.

Hoover went to FDR and presented sworn affidavits from a series of black Pullman Company porters attesting that Welles sexually propositioned them. FDR brushed the incident off. One week later, Welles's longtime adversary, U.S. Ambassador to France William Bullitt, brought more affidavits to the White House. The affidavits were obtained by Bullitt's recently deceased friend and State Department counsel Robert Walton from his friend Ernest E. Norris, president of Southern Railway. The affidavits alleged that Welles had propositioned Norris and that the businessman had seen the undersecretary of state proposition a Pullman porter and a Filipino club car attendant on a separate occasion. “Well, he's not doing it on company time, is he?” FDR asked.

Bullitt responded with the idea that would soon be used to justify a mass system of firings, hysteria, and surveillance: He told Roosevelt that Moore believed “the maintenance of Welles in public office was a menace to the country since he was subject to blackmail by foreign powers and that foreign powers had used cases of this kind to get men in their power.”

Because the president believed Welles's excuse that Bullitt had paid the porters to proposition him or was simply unwilling to betray loyalty to his childhood friend, he affirmed his support for Welles. He pushed a button under his desk to have Bullitt led out of his office. Bullitt, whose envy over the undersecretary's closeness with FDR sparked his animosity toward Welles in the first place, only became more determined to destroy his colleague. Eventually, by spreading calumnies about gay brothels and Nazis and spies through friends in the press, stories that had some believability because of the one secret they contained about their subject’s sexuality that was true, he did. FDR eventually asked for Welles’s resignation.

According to Kirchick, after FDR's untimely death just before the end of the war, the newly sworn-in President Harry Truman received many telegrams asking him to appoint Welles secretary-general of the 1945 San Francisco Conference that would establish the United Nations. Truman passed him up and gave the job to Alger Hiss, a man who would soon be accused of Soviet espionage by his gay ex-comrade, Time magazine editor Whittaker Chambers, and convicted of perjury for lying about it in a court of law soon after. During the trial, Hiss's defense, without explicitly referring to Chambers's homosexuality, which he had both renounced and admitted to the FBI, cast him as a spurned and vindictive homosexual who was obsessed with Hiss and wanted to destroy him. In Kirchick's words, the Hiss-Chambers affair “established a link between communism, disloyalty, and homosexuality in the minds of influential Washingtonians, broadening the incipient ‘red scare’ into a lavender one.”

The idea that homosexuals, particularly in the 1950s, could be blackmailed into becoming spies was not deemed far-fetched, thus the government's decision to refuse security clearances to gay people and revoke the clearances of those who already had them. But, as Kirchick points out several times, the exercise was ironic and often pointless given that once the secret is revealed, either by the employee himself or by an internal witch hunt, the secret loses its power.

For driving a general homophobic paranoia, however, the issue of security clearances lacked the sexiness of delusions about “Homosexual Internationals.” Here, Kirchick quotes the high-camp Countess R.G. Waldeck on what she calls “a world-wide conspiracy against society” by the cliquish, disloyal “little sodoms” who are “natural secret agents and natural traitors.” Waldeck also describes what is known colloquially as “gaydar” and the “astonishing understanding which this recognition creates between men who seem to be socially or politically at opposite poles.” These ideas are written to correspond to the McCarthyite fantasies about communist infiltration, and they do so well. But with the change of a single noun, they could also describe the main thesis of nearly every “global” conspiracy theory, including one that had less than 10 years before it created a society so evil that an alliance with the communists was deemed necessary to stop it.

It was this sort of fear of gay power that for a long time justified proposals suborning gay rights. Hoover's creation of a central database of known homosexuals was as on the nose as Bill Buckley's proposal to tattoo AIDS victims. Kirchick rightfully points out the irony that the Red and Lavender scares began to resemble the Stalinism they claimed to oppose: show trials, domestic surveillance, the mapping of social networks, people turning in their neighbors and rivals, nefarious list making, bribes, and blackmail. (Of course, fascists, like Stalinists, also use these tactics and worse, and the fervent anti-communists who orchestrated the Lavender Scare were often all too willing to support morally, or even directly, fascist dictatorships in Latin America and southern Europe and the Caribbean.)

In the midst of the dueling gay and communist panics, Kirchick introduces Frank Kameny, an astronomer. He was fired from his research job at the Army Map Service after the Civil Service Commission discovered he had been arrested a year earlier for cruising a police officer in a San Francisco restroom. Because of the ubiquity of government contracts during the space race, he could not find an astronomy position in the private sector that did not require a security clearance. At his wits' end after a year of unemployment, Kameny became the first gay person to sue the government for discrimination under his real name. By admitting his homosexuality as a matter of public record, he invalidated the government's explanation for why it constituted a security risk in the most concrete way possible.

It didn’t matter. The judge approved the Army's motion to dismiss the suit, and Kameny announced he would fight on. He did, founding the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Mattachine Society, whose story, along with Kameny's, is intertwined throughout the book.

The book's massive size and scope make it impossible to even list the number of fascinating characters and stories, from Odessa Madre, a black lesbian who is half Robin Hood and half Al Capone, to Craig Spence, a gay conservative grifter and self-styled Jay Gatsby whose bizarre suicide was either one last con or one of the last untapped wells on the conspiracy market. Oliver Sipple, a disabled Vietnam veteran, grabbed the arm of Sarah Jane Moore just as her gun was fired, potentially saving President Gerald Ford's life, only to have his own ruined when Harvey Milk unceremoniously outed him as gay to the press.

Too often, reading gay history feels like a sermon or a chore. Never preachy, self-conscious, or boring, Secret City has raised the bar for the genre, portraying its subjects and their city in all its contradictions. I won't forget it.

River Page is a writer and essayist. Find his Substack, Chain Smoking to Babylon.

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