Life in a Closeted Capital

REVIEW: 'Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington' by James Kirchick

July 24, 2022

Gay history—"hidden history" as James Kirchick puts it—is exceptionally hard to write. The author of any book on the subject has to navigate between two particular difficulties. The first is the fact that there is relatively little reliable material to work with. Few people left honest records. Some left verifiably dishonest ones. At best the source material is piecemeal.

Added to this is the fact that people in the past simply did not think about homosexuality as we do today. As Kirchick mentions in his passage on the downfall of Lyndon Johnson's aide Walter Jenkins, most men who engaged in casual sex in the 1950s, for instance, "did not identify themselves as belonging to the 'category' of homosexual. Sex with other men was something they did; it had no bearing on who they were." Someone could have too many martinis and a tough week at work, spread-eagle themselves on a public bathroom floor, and still think of themselves as a family man. Just one of the many problems with this is that people were—and are—simply not honest about the past.

Partly as a result of this a whole lexicon of words sprang up, a sort of subcurrent in history books (as in obituary writing) to suggest that there might have been something queer—in the old-fashioned sense of the word—about a person. Without quite mentioning it there were endless ways to suggest that a person was a celibate or even (the horror) a practicing homosexual.

There was the whole language of "unmarried," "lifelong bachelor," "artistic," and much more. Of course this is not history as it was actually lived. It is history which said about as much as it was deemed possible to say given the limited information and self-stiflings we had about something deemed entirely shameful until only very recently. As a result, to the extent that gay history has been written it has been written as a story of the people who have been exposed and become involved in scandal because of their sexuality. Which as Kirchick shows is part of the history, for sure. But far from the whole thing.

A second problem, or perhaps temptation, also exists for the historian of homosexuality. This is the developed modern trend in which it seems at times that absolutely everybody in history was gay. Or to put it another way, there is a sort of homophobic gay history writing in which any man who, for instance, ever expressed an interest in the arts, or entertainment, or loved his mother, or had a close male friend (among other suspicious vices) is immediately outed by the phalanx of modern queer studies types. These people really do think they are doing the world a service if they pick up the most clichéd tropes about homosexual men and then wield them to posthumously declare people in history as gay. It is a tedious, and tediously common, manner of working—almost an industry today, albeit a publicly funded one.

I mention these two pitfalls partly to point out that there is just so much we do not know. I was fortunate many years ago to have an older friend who used to describe frankly what life was like in gay London in the 1950s and '60s. I was grateful for it, not least because most people of that generation did not (and still do not) talk. They do not like to go over the years of being bundled into the backs of police vans, roughed up, or robbed without the ability to complain. Many men (and the focus is mainly on men here) put a prim veil over their own past. They did not like to go into the often sordid-sounding accounts of how men had sex with other men in an era in which such sex was outlawed, and reciprocated love—never mind a lasting, loving relationship—seemed an all but impossible thing. It is easy for someone of a younger generation to forget the fact, but up until very recently sex between men, let alone love between men, was among the most embarrassing things a person could be accused of. A whole life could be derailed by a single moment of indiscretion, or misfortune. The litany of stories in this book is among other things a reminder of that fact.

A strangely venomous and political review of the present volume in the Washington Post accused Secret City of allowing "homophobia [to] steal the spotlight." But it is hardly surprising if much of the material Kirchick covers is by necessity a history of scandal. How else was homosexuality likely to break above the news surface in an era in which homophobia was as common as oxygen? As it is, there is this but also much more to cover.

Kirchick organizes his vast amount of material by presidential administrations, going from 1940 to the end of the 20th century. So there are 11 major chapters, organized from the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt all the way through to Bill Clinton. To this reader, at least, much of the material was entirely fresh. To some it may be well known. But by society as a whole I would think that almost all of it is forgotten. Which is just one of the reasons we should be thankful for this tome.

Kirchick begins with the case of Sumner Welles, the married undersecretary of state who had the unfortunate habit, when drunk, of attempting to seduce black train workers. On one occasion one of the porters alerted another to Welles's advances. "You have a cocksucker up there in Compartment E," says the worker. "He wanted to blow my whistle."

Other cases are more familiar, some more opaque. One constant theme is the way certain people like Welles could be protected, for a time at least. Of particular note is the way in which some had the good fortune to orbit around the Kennedy White House. But another theme of Secret City is the way in which homosexuality could bubble along even under scandals that seemed to have nothing to do with it.

Kirchick gives a fascinating account of the Whittaker Chambers/Alger Hiss imbroglio, in which he fully examines the way homosexuality and implied homosexuality ran through that affair. It is characteristic of Kirchick's volume that even an area as well covered as this, and McCarthyism in general, is here looked at in a new light. For instance the so-called Lavender Scare during the Eisenhower administration has been covered before, in documentary and book form. It culminated in 1953 with President Eisenhower signing an executive order barring people from working in the federal government if they were suspected of being homosexual. But what previous histories have not gone into is the way in which gay scares in Washington, rather like anti-Semitic scares in Moscow, were almost a constant of politics in D.C.

In part of course this was understandable in the nation's capital—a city dominated by the business of government. And it is true that homosexuals were vulnerable to blackmail. But then so were married heterosexual officials who might have dipped their wick outside of the marital bed. More complex was the undeniable intertwining of some homosexuals (again the Jewish comparison bears repeating) being involved in communism and other politically subversive activities. It is a subject in itself that homosexuality and communism—treachery—became intertwined in so many imaginations. The exposure of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, among others, cemented the Cold War idea that there was something particular about gays that might give them over to treason of a Burgess-like kind. The fact that such rumors swirled even around Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald is just one example of the way in which homosexuality was used as an explanation for almost everything. And not just as the basis of a suspicion, but as the basis of a fear. As early as 1947 the Washington Post could be found warning that not just Lafayette Park or Dupont Circle but the whole of the nation's capital had become "more or less a haven for sexual perverts and degenerates." Some newspaper copy never changes.

It is easy to find ratbags and hypocrites from every party and background in Kirchick's tale. But it is also worth noting the number of heroes it contains. For instance, Bayard Rustin is brought to the fore in an extraordinarily moving way. Rustin worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement. But precisely because of his closeness to Dr. King and his brilliance as an organizer of effective, nonviolent protest, people like Strom Thurmond did everything they could to destroy him.

That they did so was not surprising. Rustin had a brief spell in the Young Communist League in the 1930s, though he had become swiftly disillusioned by them and their attempt to hijack the African-American civil rights movement. More central to Thurmond's case against Rustin was that he was guilty of what the senator called "sex perversion." By which of course Thurmond did not mean the career-long groping and unwonted fondling of young female colleagues, which he was accused of throughout his career. Thurmond meant that Rustin was gay.

With anyone else the accusation would have taken them out of any relevant society. But Rustin did something that was then almost unheard of. He did not deny the allegation or resile from it—a disposition so exceptional at the time that, as Kirchick writes, it was "virtually unparalleled." Rustin suffered a great deal for his stand. But as Kirchick writes, "Up to this moment, no gay person in American public life had survived a charge of homosexuality. The country was over a decade away from electing its first openly gay public official and two decades away from electing its first openly gay member of Congress." The centrality of Rustin's role in the March on Washington and his role in this narrative is worth a separate study in itself. As Rustin said shortly before his death in 1987, "If I've learned anything it is that people, by helping others who are also in trouble, grow in strength to help themselves—that a new psychological and spiritual element is brought to bear."

Still, despite the occasional hero, it would be wrong to portray the story of Rustin or almost anyone else in this book as being happy. Every step of the progress made in this narrative sees people buying freedom for their successors whilst to a greater or lesser extent losing it for themselves.

Nothing got better seamlessly. Gay panics and the espying of gay plots in all manner of places lasted far beyond the height of the Cold War. During Iran-Contra, there were those who wished to push a gay line about the whole affair. AIDS added a whole new layer of fear and prejudice. And even the Clinton administration, which may have seemed like a great leap forward in tolerance for much of the country, was an era in which being openly gay saw you expelled from the military. Lest people forget, the U.S. intelligence community was still expelling gay patriots from its ranks into the 2000s.

Such history is hard to write for plenty of reasons. Not just because of the reasons mentioned at the top, but because a lesser writer might see an almost teleological working in the story. In fact, none of the secret city's emergence into a comparatively open one would have happened had a few remarkable people not emerged, often against their will, and at the utmost personal expense, to change the course of history.

Some of the book's reviewers have complained that there is too much focus in Secret City on the topmost layers of government and society. But it is simply not possible to get in everybody who should be got into a volume such as this. Of course Kirchick has to focus on the most prominent, documented, and written-about cases. Because even with all the archival work he has obviously done, it is not possible and probably never will be, to find every layer in a subject like this.

As he writes toward the close:

The story of the secret city—of the slow but inexorable increase in acceptance, the expansion of opportunity, and the extension of rights and responsibilities to citizens unjustly excluded from their promise—mirrors that of the country at large. … The story of the secret city is also the story of a nation overcoming one of its deepest fears.

It is the nature of any city that its excavation is painstaking, fragmentary, and necessarily incomplete. When dealing with a hidden side of a city, as Kirchick does here, it is a simple fact that there will be thousands if not millions of stories that are lost to us now, never to be recovered. Minor attendees—people in the typing department, porters, and more—are bound to be lost. Few, if any, will ever have their stories told. But Kirchick ensures that what does remain is told for them all, as well as everyone lucky enough to come after.

Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington
by James Kirchick
Henry Holt and Co., 848 pp., $38

Douglas Murray is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, a columnist at the New York Post, and author most recently of The War on the West.